Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have made a breakthrough that brings mind reading a step closer to reality. The Guardian reports that through the study of brain activity, implants can translate thoughts into words, which will prove useful to those people who have lost the ability to speak.
Listening to the windmills of the mind
Success at decoding thought fragments into speech has granted researchers fresh insight into the means by which the human brain processes language. Eventually, neuroscientists believe that widespread use of brain implants will not only capture word fragments and individual words but entire sentences at a time, as quickly as the subject imagines them.
Individuals who have lost the ability to speak due to a stroke or other medical condition will benefit greatly from this research, notes Dr. Robert Knight, senior member of the research team at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.
“This is exciting in terms of the basic science of how the brain decodes what we hear,” said Knight. “Potentially, the technique could be used to develop an implantable prosthetic device to aid speaking, and for some patients that would be wonderful. The next step is to test whether we can decode a word when a person imagines it. That might sound spooky, but this could really help patients. Perhaps in 10 years it will be as common as grandmother getting a new hip.”
The “mind reading” UC Berkeley study recently was published in the neuroscience journal PLoS Biology.
Mind reading study methodology
Fifteen patients already in hospitals for operations to treat epilepsy were tested by the study organizers. The top of the skull was removed, and a series of electrodes were laid across the brain’s surface. As researchers played a series of words over a 10-minute period, the electrode net monitored brain activity.
Various computer programs recognized sounds encoded in the brain waves, particularly the range of human speech (from 1 to 8,000 Hertz). Best results were achieved when activity was recorded in the superior temporal gyrus area of the brain. The software played a variety of words for the subjects in order to gather enough data to create an algorithm for translating brain waves to speech.
Ethical concerns of mind reading
Mind reading has traditionally been considered to be more in the realm of science fiction than science fact. The suggestion of actual research into the field has raised ethical concerns that if perfected, such techniques would be used covertly or as a means of interrogation for criminals and terrorists. Yet as Knight makes clear, such things are too far away from the realm of possibility to take seriously.
“To reproduce what we did, you would have to open up someone’s skull and they would have to co-operate,” he said.
Oxford University neuroscience professor Dr. Jan Schnupp believes that Knight’s work has proven “remarkable,” and that it paves the way to “rapid progress toward biomedical applications.”
How we read minds every day
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