Preliminary findings in BMC Research Notes cause a stir

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In a first step towards establishing whether or not performance in cognitive tests is related to differences in brain structure, researchers writing in BMC Research Notes recently used brain scans from 40 volunteers to find out how well the results of eight vocational guidance tests correlated to the distribution of gray matter in their brains. Despite the preliminary nature of the findings, the story has been widely covered in the press with some news sites claiming that brain scans could soon be used to determine a person’s ideal career alongside – or even instead of - vocational guidance tests.

BMC Research Notes 2010, 3:206

Taking a closer look at the research itself, the study did yield some interesting preliminary results. The research team were looking for associations between test results and brain structure and were also keen to see whether narrower tests of specific abilities could be more useful than tests of broader factors like general intelligence. In the 40 individuals studied, the gray matter correlates for the broad and narrow test types were different. Interpreting their results, the authors suggest that cognitive tests could potentially help to identify brain networks related to cognitive abilities beyond a general intelligence factor.  

It is perhaps not surprising that this study received considerable attention  both positive and negative in the media. After all, if researchers could unequivocally demonstrate a robust association between different cognitive abilities and brain structure, the job of the school careers adviser would suddenly become a great deal easier.

But, as emphasized in BioMed Central’s press release, these are preliminary findings. Acknowledging the study’s limited power, the authors do not draw firm conclusions but instead suggest that their results form a basis for further investigation into the relationship between cognitive abilities and brain structure. The potential for brain scans to become the vocational guidance tool of choice may exist, but we are not there yet.