electrodes placed on the brain  (Source:
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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