Searchlight analysis: promise, pitfalls, and potential

Joset A EtzelTodd S Braver


Multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) is an increasingly popular approach for characterizing the information present in neural activity as measured by fMRI. For neuroimaging researchers, the searchlight technique serves as the most intuitively appealing means of implementing MVPA with fMRI data. However, searchlight approaches carry with them a number of special concerns and limitations that can lead to serious interpretation errors in practice, such as misidentifying a cluster as informative, or failing to detect truly informative voxels. Here we describe how such distorted results can occur, using both schematic illustrations and examples from actual fMRI datasets. We recommend that confirmatory and sensitivity tests, such as the ones prescribed here, should be considered a necessary stage of searchlight analysis interpretation, and that their adoption will allow the full potential of searchlight analysis to be realized.


Sep 11, 2003·Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience·Thomas A CarlsonSheng He
Apr 27, 2005·Nature Neuroscience·John-Dylan Haynes, Geraint Rees
Apr 27, 2005·Nature Neuroscience·Yukiyasu Kamitani, Frank Tong
Mar 16, 2006·Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America·Nikolaus KriegeskortePeter Bandettini
Jun 7, 2006·Current Biology : CB·Yukiyasu Kamitani, Frank Tong
Aug 11, 2006·Trends in Cognitive Sciences·Kenneth A NormanJames V Haxby
Feb 13, 2007·Current Biology : CB·John-Dylan HaynesRichard E Passingham
Sep 7, 2007·NeuroImage·Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, Peter Bandettini
Nov 3, 2007·NeuroImage·Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, Peter Bandettini
May 31, 2008·Science·Tom M MitchellMarcel Adam Just
Feb 6, 2009·The Journal of Neuroscience : the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience·Mark StokesJohn Duncan
Apr 28, 2009·Nature Neuroscience·Nikolaus KriegeskorteChris I Baker
May 9, 2009·Science·André KnopsStanislas Dehaene
Sep 29, 2009·Current Biology : CB·Evelyn EgerAndreas Kleinschmidt
May 22, 2010·NeuroImage·Francisco Pereira, Matthew Botvinick
Jul 14, 2010·NeuroImage·Nikolaas N OosterhofJörn Diedrichsen
Jul 27, 2010·NeuroImage·Yi ChenJohn-Dylan Haynes
Aug 3, 2010·NeuroImage·Malin BjörnsdotterJohan Wessberg
Jan 28, 2011·Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience·Susanne QuadfliegC Neil Macrae
Feb 18, 2011·IEEE Transactions on Medical Imaging·Tianhao Zhang, Christos Davatzikos
Jun 2, 2011·Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America·Adrian NestorMarlene Behrmann
Sep 29, 2011·Annual Review of Psychology·Frank Tong, Michael S Pratte
Mar 21, 2012·Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America·Javier Gonzalez-CastilloPeter Bandettini
May 23, 2012·Cerebral Cortex·Jörn DiedrichsenJohn W Krakauer
Jul 27, 2012·Neuroscience Bulletin·Zhi YangXuchu Weng


Aug 8, 2014·Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience·Robert S Chavez, Todd F Heatherton
Jul 20, 2014·Cerebral Cortex·David WisniewskiJohn-Dylan Haynes
Mar 12, 2016·Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience·Alex ClarkeLorraine K Tyler
Sep 29, 2015·Trends in Cognitive Sciences·Thomas Naselaris, Kendrick N Kay
May 23, 2014·NeuroImage·Zhi YangPeter Bandettini
Jul 27, 2015·Medical Image Analysis·Bilwaj GaonkarAlzheimers Disease Neuroimaging Initiative
Apr 15, 2015·Cerebral Cortex·Michael W ColeTodd S Braver
Jul 30, 2014·Frontiers in Human Neuroscience·Johannes StelzerRobert Turner
Jan 23, 2015·Frontiers in Neuroinformatics·Martin N HebartJohn-Dylan Haynes
Jul 16, 2014·Frontiers in Psychology·Stefano Anzellotti, Alfonso Caramazza
May 6, 2014·Frontiers in Neuroscience·Johannes StelzerRobert Turner
Jan 21, 2015·Cerebral Cortex·Joset A EtzelTodd S Braver
Jun 17, 2016·Medical Image Analysis·Sylvain TakerkartOlivier Coulon
Jul 17, 2016·NeuroImage·Christopher J Markiewicz, Jason W Bohland
Aug 9, 2016·Frontiers in Neuroinformatics·Nikolaas N OosterhofJames V Haxby
Feb 24, 2017·Nature Neuroscience·Choong-Wan WooTor D Wager
Feb 24, 2017·Nature Neuroscience·Jonathan D CohenTheodore L Willke
Apr 22, 2017·Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience·Jan DerrfussChristian J Fiebach
Jan 25, 2018·Cerebral Cortex·Michael P NotterEveline Geiser
Jan 29, 2018·Experimental Brain Research·James H KryklywyDerek G V Mitchell
Dec 1, 2017·Cerebral Cortex·Xixi WangAlzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative
Jun 8, 2018·Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience·Apoorva BhandariDavid Badre
Jun 14, 2018·Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience·John C KsanderAngela H Gutchess
Jul 20, 2019·Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience·Sarah M TashjianAdriana Galván
Jan 4, 2018·Neuroinformatics·Jessica SchrouffJ Mourão-Miranda
Feb 9, 2020·Human Brain Mapping·Nima AsadiZoran Obradovic
Nov 9, 2019·Cerebral Cortex·Preston P ThakralDaniel L Schacter
Jan 23, 2019·Cerebral Cortex·Jason P GallivanJody C Culham
Nov 29, 2016·Frontiers in Neuroscience·José M SoaresNuno Sousa
May 4, 2017·Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences·Rick O GilmoreTal Yarkoni

Related Concepts

Trending Feeds


Coronaviruses encompass a large family of viruses that cause the common cold as well as more serious diseases, such as the ongoing outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19; formally known as 2019-nCoV). Coronaviruses can spread from animals to humans; symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties; in more severe cases, infection can lead to death. This feed covers recent research on COVID-19.

STING Receptor Agonists

Stimulator of IFN genes (STING) are a group of transmembrane proteins that are involved in the induction of type I interferon that is important in the innate immune response. The stimulation of STING has been an active area of research in the treatment of cancer and infectious diseases. Here is the latest research on STING receptor agonists.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a disease characterized by unexplained disabling fatigue; the pathology of which is incompletely understood. Discover the latest research on chronic fatigue syndrome here.

Hereditary Sensory Autonomic Neuropathy

Hereditary Sensory Autonomic Neuropathies are a group of inherited neurodegenerative disorders characterized clinically by loss of sensation and autonomic dysfunction. Here is the latest research on these neuropathies.

Glut1 Deficiency

Glut1 deficiency, an autosomal dominant, genetic metabolic disorder associated with a deficiency of GLUT1, the protein that transports glucose across the blood brain barrier, is characterized by mental and motor developmental delays and infantile seizures. Follow the latest research on Glut1 deficiency with this feed.

Regulation of Vocal-Motor Plasticity

Dopaminergic projections to the basal ganglia and nucleus accumbens shape the learning and plasticity of motivated behaviors across species including the regulation of vocal-motor plasticity and performance in songbirds. Discover the latest research on the regulation of vocal-motor plasticity here.

Neural Activity: Imaging

Imaging of neural activity in vivo has developed rapidly recently with the advancement of fluorescence microscopy, including new applications using miniaturized microscopes (miniscopes). This feed follows the progress in this growing field.

Nodding Syndrome

Nodding Syndrome is a neurological and epileptiform disorder characterized by psychomotor, mental, and growth retardation. Discover the latest research on Nodding Syndrome here.

LRRK2 & Microtubules

Mutations in the LRRK2 gene are risk-factors for developing Parkinson’s disease (PD). LRRK2 mutations in PD have been shown to enhance its association with microtubules. Here is the latest research.