8.2. NIFTI and BRIK/HEAD: Similarities, differences and mappings

8.2.1. Overview

The NIFTI format was created to provide a single format for volumetric neuroimaging data that major software packages could all read and write. NIFTI was created in the context of trying to take useful information from existing formats, and create a realistic+useful compromise. In particular, it was meant to upgrade the much older “ANALYZE 7.5” file format (*.img/*.hdr) used by some software, in particular to remove ambiguity.

There is a large amount of overlap between the BRIK/HEAD and NIFTI formats, as well as a few differences that are useful to be aware of. We cover some of these here.


The formal name of the format is NIfTI, but we often write NIFTI for simplicity of typing.

8.2.2. Dataset: one or two files

Some image formats separate the data (numbers comprising the volumetric information) and header (“meta” information that allows data to be realized as grids with physical spacing of mm, etc.) into separate files. This means that the data part can be stored in binary format, while the much smaller header information can simply be human-readable text. The former can be zipped/compressed for efficient disk store, while the latter can then be conveniently queried or read without the work of unzipping it. The BRIK/HEAD and IMG/HDR file formats have this organizational structure.

The NIFTI format is a single file that contains both the data and header together in a binary-format file. This means the file must be unzipped to query the header. But this single-file format has the convenience of only needing to copy around a single file as one works (as opposed to a data+header pair), also making data directories easier to read.

8.2.3. Headers: Minimal/fixed (+extensions) or flexible

NIFTI header fields were designed to be fixed and rather minimal. That is, the set of items does not change (and they take up a known number of bytes on the disk), and there is intentionally not a very large set of them.

The original list of fields for NIFTI (which is now known as NIFTI-1) is shown here:
This takes up 348 bytes total.

In 2011, updates were made to create a NIFTI-2 format. One reason was to permit the use of larger datasets, by encoding dimensions with 64-bit integers (rather than earlier 16-bit signed integers). Some other changes included rearranging the order of header fields a bit. There was a public/open discussion of this, and the full set of proposed changes was approved; see here for a large part of the discussion. In the end, the NIFTI-2 header also contains a fixed number of fields, shown here in the struct nifti_2_header:
This takes up 540 bytes total.

These are also useful webpages (kudos to AM Winkler) for descriptions of NIFTI header info:


Some updates (such as allowed field values described here) have also occurred in the ensuing years, so always check the most up-to-date documentation, as well.

BRIK/HEAD file headers are more flexible and can store a larger amount of information directly. While the BRIK/HEAD fields greatly overlap and directly map onto the smaller set of NIFTI fields, additional items that AFNI used include:

  • space descriptions

  • subbrick/subvolume labels, which are useful for knowing what each volume is

  • statistical information, such as the type of the stat, its degrees of freedom, etc.

  • flags to use an integer-like colormap when viewing in the GUI (useful for ROI maps and atlases)

  • multiple scale factors, one per volume

  • the accumulated history of commands run on the data, which is useful for detailed data provenance

... and more. Many of these pieces of information have been quite beneficial for assisting visualization and data interpretation.

Importantly, even though the NIFTI header format is fixed, it does allow for “extensions” to be included. This is a means for storing additional information with the NIFTI dataset (an alternative that appears to be increasingly used in the field is using a JSON sidecar with the file). However, software packages will generally not preserve the extension information that they do not formally produce themselves, which is reasonable enough. So, users should be aware that switching between software during an analysis can lead to purging of extensions.

When AFNI outputs NIFTI datasets, by default it will include the contents of what would have been the “HEAD” file an extension. Therefore, even NIFTI files can contain the useful information described above (processing history, statistical degrees of freedom, etc.). The overlapping content in the NIFTI header and this extension should always agree, particularly when input/output by AFNI programs.

A caveat: Properly managing header information is a major consideration for software developers. Users who read in data on their own and process it on their shown should be very, very careful to ensure that all header information afterwards remains appropriate. Often changes to the data mean that header information must be correspondingly updated, and simply propagating headers is not always correct. For examples, changing the type of the data requires a corresponding header change. This is a major consideration during processing, to not introduce subtle errors that are difficult to track down later.

8.2.4. Spaces: qform_code and sform_code or space name(s)

This is a pretty large discussion point. Please see this page for the details, as well as comments on using AFNI programs to deal with some subtle issues that can arise with coordinate space considerations.