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October 1, 2010
NIDA Director, Dr. Nora D. Volkow

An NIH-supported consortium invites neuroscientists worldwide to use and contribute to a compilation of resting functional magnetic resonance imaging (R-fMRI) datasets. Their call opens a second phase in the Functional Connectomes Project (FCP) which was launched in 2009 and has already made more than 1,200 R-fMRI images freely available to researchers. Whereas datasets in the Project's first phase included only basic demographic information about subjects, the new phase will include (anonymized, HIPAA-compliant) information on subjects' psychiatric and behavioral phenotypes.

R-fMRI images assess fluctuations in blood oxygenation across the whole brain while subjects are physically inactive and not engaged in any externally imposed task. Even in the absence of external demands, the brain remains in a high state of activity, and R-fMRI allows investigators to detect networks of neuronal activity comprised of multiple brain regions. The simple demographic information included in the first FCP phase has enabled scientists to look for potential contrasts in intrinsic brain activity in men versus women and across different life stages. When combined with more sophisticated phenotypic information, including psychiatric disease diagnosis and symptoms, researchers can use R-fMRI data to look for changes in intrinsic activity related to mental health conditions, including addiction. Observations of such changes could provide new insights into the ways that these conditions constrain the brain’s responses to the environment.

The new initiative, called the International Neuroimaging Data-sharing Initiative (INDI), is part of the Neuroinformatics Tools and Resources Clearinghouse (NITRC;, which in turn is supported by NIDA via the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research. To access INDI, researchers must agree to contribute phenotypically characterized datasets on a regular schedule. To date, 13 consortia, including groups in China, Spain, Germany, and the United States, have agreed to these terms.

Michael Milham, MD, PhD, of New York University, leads the new initiative. He recognizes that sharing highly characterized data sets, particularly before they are published, represents a new cultural norm in the neuroimaging community. However, it is established practice in some other research areas, such as genetics. Researchers in those fields recognize that, in exchange for sacrificing priority in the exploration of their own datasets, access to this massive dataset gives them a significant advantage and the ability to formulate and test new hypotheses.

Dr. Milham points out that, "INDI's future success depends on the willingness of neuroimagers to upload their data, and is only limited by the imagination of the researchers who want to support it." It is my hope, both as a researcher and as an NIH Institute Director, that neuroscientists everywhere will contribute to this game-changing effort.


Nora D. Volkow, M.D.