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electrodes placed on the brain  (Source: downstate.edu)
New method could help those incapable of speech

At some point in the near future, mind-reading could be a power possessed not only by fictional characters like Professor Charles Xavier (Professor X), but also real-life researchers who are searching for ways to help individuals who have lost their ability to speak.

Robert Knight, of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California - Berkeley, and Brian Pasley, a scientist in Knight's lab at UC Berkeley, have successfully translated brain activity into words.

The team was able to do this by recruiting the cooperation of 15 patients, who were already in the hospital for intractable epilepsy treatment. This particular operation requires removal of the top of the patient's skull, where a net of electrodes are then placed along the surface of the brain. The electrodes identify the origin areas of the patient's fit, and that particular tissue is eliminated.

The 15 patients were each played different words aloud for five or 10 minutes. While the words were played, the brain activity of each patient was recorded via the electrode nets. As it turns out, the brain managed to break down sounds into different acoustic frequencies, where the range of speech is 1-8,000 Hertz.

Later, new words would be played to the patients in order to see if familiar words could be identified and repeated. According to the researchers, they received accurate results from recordings in the superior temporal gyrus, which is part of the brain on one side above the ear. While some words could be identified, it was difficult to recognize others, showing that the area of mind reading definitely needs more research.

"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."

One issue that was brought up in regards to this form of mind reading is the possibility of it being used to interrogate criminals. However, Knight said this would be near impossible since the skull needs to be removed and cooperation of the patient is needed in order for it to work.

Other potential issues that researchers may run into with mind reading is distinguishing between private thoughts and what the person really wants to say.

This isn't UC Berkeley's first crack at the concept of mind-reading. Last September, Jack Gallant and Shinji Nishimoto from UC Berkeley used fMRI and computational models to decipher and reconstruct movies from the minds of patients. They were able to successfully rebuild the human visual experience by piecing together videos from the mind.

Sources: PLoS Biology, The Guardian



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A few thoughts on this... ;)
By MrBlastman on 2/1/2012 1:58:40 PM , Rating: 5
I read elsewhere that the technique these researchers used to make this discovery was through a system of "observable comparison." Let me explain: Their modus involved first recording patterns over periods specific to the receipt of particular words/phrases through the patients ears. They simply plotted what the subject's brain response was. Afterwards, they repeated this many times and found patterns that were distinguishable from others.

In addition, through interpolation and prediction, they created a system to predict what other patterns might look at based on the individual subject neural responses. It allowed them to reveal how the brain would react to words and phrases they had not been subject to recording of. One conclusion they came up with though, relating broadly to all of this, is that a subject only needed to think of that word or phrase to stimulate the temporal lobe area in such a way that mimicked how it would react to hearing it.

That is how they were able to read the thoughts in a nutshell. So this begs my first thought:

If an individual has damage to the temporal lobe in the area of speech recognition/production, would it not make it highly difficult to communicate with them given the facilities that generate the speech and interpret it are both damaged to begin with? I'd concur it would but through re-wiring, might introduce the possibility in a different way as well as their damaged brain will have specific signals through long-term testing and comparison could help reveal.

Second:

As our brains are from similar neurons, the one differentiating factor we have versus our peers is the synaptic wiring in our heads. Every person's wiring is different in one way or another. Thus, the signals generated and the flow of them between the neurons and synapses will also differ and at times, greatly between individuals. Since this process is highly dependent on the patterns of thoughts... might it only be tailored to a specific individual?

If so... then potentially reading minds in the future could be hampered significantly by this fundamental concept of hour our brains behave on an individual basis. Sure, there are similar traits among us all, but the wiring ultimately will differ to a degree once you go beyond the regional shared specifics.

Thirdly, it bothers me that if the second concept above is not true, how our rights such as the fifth amendment could be violated. Thankfully as the author points out, it can only be done right now with implants below the skull and directly situated on the brain. Time however will allow us to improve sensor technology far beyond what we have now and thus sensitivity. Heck, imaging actual synaptic activity will probably be possible at some point as these are chemical exchanges between the nodes.




RE: A few thoughts on this... ;)
By Janooo on 2/2/2012 9:46:49 AM , Rating: 2
In regards to the comment that everybody has a different brain, the device would have to go through a calibration process (listening and measuring brain activity) for each individual in order to work.


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