Real‐Time Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging


Real‐time functional magnetic resonance imaging (rt‐fMRI) is an increasingly popular noninvasive technique used to study brain function in ‘real time’. In contrast to traditional fMRI, rt‐fMRI allows researchers to access and manipulate neuroimaging data as they are acquired. This advance allows experimenters to use fMRI data in novel ways, including: quality assessment, biofeedback, dynamically controlled experimental tasks and assistive technologies (e.g. control over prostheses). Cutting‐edge research in this field has demonstrated compelling findings in healthy human participants and patient populations alike, including: volitional regulation of multiple brain regions, improved symptoms in several clinical populations and successful nonverbal communication. As rt‐fMRI is still in the early phases of development, we anticipate that this technology will continue to be used in novel and exciting ways by current and future generations of scientists.

Key Concepts

  • Real‐time functional magnetic resonance imaging (rt‐fMRI) allows fMRI data to be analysed during data acquisition and provides a number of advantages over traditional fMRI.
  • Common uses of rt‐fMRI include data monitoring and quality control, neurofeedback training, dynamic task control and use as an assistive technology.
  • While first introduced in the late 1990s, the development and usage of rt‐fMRI have grown markedly in recent years.
  • Limitations and challenges of rt‐fMRI include determining effective control conditions, accounting for the lag in the BOLD signal and online data processing.
  • Rt‐fMRI is an exciting technique that promises to kindle both novel basic science and clinical research.

Keywords: real‐time fMRI; neurofeedback; biofeedback; brain–computer interface; BOLD; cognitive training

Figure 1. Schematic illustration of (a) standard fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) environment and (b) rt‐fMRI (real‐time functional magnetic resonance imaging) environment. rt‐fMRI involves the addition of another node, often another computer, which allows researchers access to fMRI data as they are acquired. The data are used for a number of functions including providing participants in the MRI machine with ‘neurofeedback’ – feedback about changes in their brain activation in response to changes in their thoughts (shown here).
Figure 2. Schematic illustrating a common setup for neurofeedback training. Researchers implement a feedback loop in order for participants to interact with their own brain activation (e.g. thermometer); participants can process this information to update strategies (e.g. thoughts, emotions) with the aim of further modulating their own brain activity.


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MacInnes, Jeff J, and Dickerson, Kathryn C(Jan 2018) Real‐Time Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027168]