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In recent years, an increasing number of studies have used Voxel Based Morphometry (VBM) to compare a single patient with a psychiatric or neurological condition of interest against a group of healthy controls. However, the validity of this approach critically relies on the assumption that the single patient is drawn from a hypothetical population with a normal distribution and variance equal to that of the control group. In a previous investigation, we demonstrated that family-wise false positive error rate (i.e., the proportion of statistical comparisons yielding at least one false positive) in single case VBM are much higher than expected (Scarpazza et al., 2013). Here, we examine whether the use of non-parametric statistics, which does not rely on the assumptions of normal distribution and equal variance, would enable the investigation of single subjects with good control of false positive risk. We empirically estimated false positive rates (FPRs) in single case non-parametric VBM, by performing 400 statistical comparisons between a single disease-free individual and a group of 100 disease-free controls. The impact of smoothing (4, 8, and 12 mm) and type of pre-processing (Modulated, Unmodulated) was also examined, as these factors have been found to influence FPRs in previous investigations using parametric statistics. The 400 statistical comparisons were repeated using two independent, freely available data sets in order to maximize the generalizability of the results. We found that the family-wise error rate was 5% for increases and 3.6% for decreases in one data set; and 5.6% for increases and 6.3% for decreases in the other data set (5% nominal). Further, these results were not dependent on the level of smoothing and modulation. Therefore, the present study provides empirical evidence that single case VBM studies with non-parametric statistics are not susceptible to high false positive rates. The critical implication of this finding is that VBM can be used to characterize neuroanatomical alterations in individual subjects as long as non-parametric statistics are employed.

Original publication




Journal article


Front Neurosci

Publication Date





false positives, magnetic resonance imaging, neuroimaging, non-parametric statistics, single case study, voxel based morphometry