Scientist Develops Method to Read Minds

Stephen Hawking communicates using a clever computer program
especially designed for his needs.  Note the small sensor on Professor
Hawking's right cheek. 
Today, physicist Stephen Hawking communicates using those few muscles his brain still controls, with winks and twitches that are interpreted by a computer and the guesswork of those around him. His mind is trapped. If there were a way to directly capture the electrical signals in his brain to say or write what he is thinking as he thinks it, it would free him from the perpetual guessing game that he and his assistants now endure.  Hawking is not alone in this inability to communicate.

There may be not a cure for Hawking's paralysis, but one day soon there may be a method for him to communicate directly with the world around him based on the discoveries neuroscientist Irina Simanova made during her PhD work at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Simanova has shown that by identifying and measuring brain activity using existing technology that the electrical signals produced in your brain do show whether you are thinking about an animal or a tool. In other words, she found a way to know what you're thinking before you say it, knowledge that could be used to develop practical tools to convert brain signals into speech. And establishing a scientific base for research into the existence of ESP, a favorite of science fiction writers world wide.

Think of a cat
Using existing machines, an Electroencephalograph (EEG) to measure electrical activity in the scalp and Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, Simanova is the first to show that if you think of a cat the same neurons fire in the brain as when you say the word cat.

"This shows that there is a common neural component for images and words within one category", Simanova explains. "That is interesting knowledge for scientists who develop tools to convert brain signals into speech."

These measurements work because our memory for word meaning is stored in specific small areas of the brain.  When you think of a non-living object like a tool, specific neural cells in the brain become active. In contrast, when you think of something living, such as an animal, that thought is processed by a different set of neurons.

Predicting speech
Simanova also used Magnetoencephalography (MEG), a non-invasive neurophysiological technique that measures the magnetic fields generated by neurons as they occur, tried to predict the category of a word that the test subject had yet to say, succeeding in 65 percent of trials.

"A nice result," Simanova says, especially because this was an explorative study. Of course, ideally we aim for 100-percent correct predictions." Her next step is to study more objects within a single category. 'In the current study, we used very mainstream objects, for instance cats and dogs. Now I want to find out if the same principles apply for exotic species, like naked cats.'


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Story Source:  Materials provided by Radboud University Nijmegen. "Conceptual representation in the brain: Towards mind-reading?." ScienceDaily. 17 April 2014.


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