Summary: Neuroscientists at UC San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new neuroimaging method using MRIs and advanced multivariate analysis to predict cognitive functions from smaller datasets, challenging the notion that large participant numbers are necessary for meaningful results.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Efficient Analysis with Small Samples: Carolina Makowski, PhD, and her team demonstrated that smaller datasets can yield significant insights using advanced multivariate analysis, challenging the need for large study groups in neuroimaging.
  2. Task-Based MRI Predictions: The team used task-based functional MRI to accurately predict cognitive functions and behaviors, showing strong correlations and enhancing the understanding of brain activities.
  3. Leveraging Large Databases for Targeted Studies: The researchers utilized large datasets like the ABCD study to conduct focused research on specific health outcomes, improving research efficiency and enabling significant studies with fewer resources.


Neuroscientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have introduced a transformative approach to neuroimaging, detailed in their latest publication in the journal Cerebral Cortex. Their innovative method leverages MRIs to predict cognitive functions and behavioral patterns, marking a significant advance in brain research.

Redefining Neuroimaging Standards

The team, led by postdoctoral fellow Carolina Makowski, PhD, challenges the traditional belief that neuroimaging studies require large numbers of participants to produce meaningful results. By utilizing advanced multivariate analysis techniques, they have demonstrated that meaningful insights can be gleaned from much smaller datasets.

This breakthrough is particularly notable for its application of task-based functional MRI data to predict general cognition and behavior related to specific cognitive tasks, such as working memory. The researchers found strong correlations and predictive power when focusing on these activation patterns, which are typically part of the cognitive tasks being studied.

Using AI to Enhance MRI Accuracy

Further enhancing the robustness of their findings, the research utilized the extensive Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study database, which includes MRI scans from approximately 12,000 children aged 9 and 10. This large dataset provided a rich source for training their predictive models using complex multivariate methods, sometimes referred to as AI. These methods allow for the tuning of specific relationships within the data, sharpening the accuracy when applied to smaller, targeted studies.

The approach not only allows for effective predictions with smaller groups—as few as 40 participants in some cases—but also maximizes the use of existing large datasets by enabling focused investigations into specific health outcomes. This capability is particularly valuable for studies with limited resources or those targeting niche populations.

Neuroimaging Breakthrough Validates Smaller Brain Studies

Senior author Anders M. Dale, PhD, emphasizes the significance of this methodology for tapping into the full potential of large databases like the ABCD, facilitating detailed studies on subsets of the population relevant to various health conditions, including substance use, psychiatric outcomes, and dementia.

Co-author Tim Brown, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Neurosciences, says the group’s publication is important in that it reopens doors that brain researchers around the world believed had been slammed shut by a 2022 paper that asserted only very large databases could generate valuable results.

“You have a whole bunch of grant holders who don’t have thousands of individuals in their studies,” Brown says. “And they’re suddenly being told: ‘You can’t do reproducible work.’ What we’re showing here is that reproducible brain-wide association studies do not require thousands of individuals.”

Featured image: Brain images developed by Anders Dale representing the average over thousands of brains from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study database.