Over the past decade, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has emerged as a powerful new instrument to collect vast quantities of data about activity in the human brain. A typical fMRI experiment can produce a three-dimensional image related to the human subject’s brain activity every half second, at a spatial resolution of a few millimeters. As in other modern empirical sciences, this new instrumentation has led to a flood of new data, and a corresponding need for new data analysis methods. We describe recent research applying machine learning methods to the problem of classifying the cognitive state of a human subject based on fRMI data observed over a single time interval. In particular, we present case studies in which we have successfully trained classifiers to distinguish cognitive states such as (1) whether the human subject is looking at a picture or a sentence, (2) whether the subject is reading an ambiguous or non-ambiguous sentence, and (3) whether the word the subject is viewing is a word describing food, people, buildings, etc. This learning problem provides an interesting case study of classifier learning from extremely high dimensional (105 features), extremely sparse (tens of training examples), noisy data. This paper summarizes the results obtained in these three case studies, as well as lessons learned about how to successfully apply machine learning methods to train classifiers in such settings.
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