Science, Weeklies

From Mind Researchers to Mind Readers

Scientists believe they may finally have found a way to read minds.

From psychics on the streets to comic book superheroes, many people have toyed with the idea of being able to read minds. Superheroes have had some of the most notable motives, fighting crime and helping the less fortunate, but they have always been mere fiction or figments of our imagination.

What was once fiction may become fact as a team of doctors and researchers strive to make mind reading an actual possibility. Through extensive research and experiments, scientists may have uncovered a method where detecting brain signals and decoding them may produce a letter, words and even thoughts.

The 2011 Journal of Neural Engineering reported that doctors at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center and the University of California, Berkeley are using a technology known as electrocorticography to surgically attach electrode sensors onto the surface of the brain in order to receive the most direct contact to the brain and hopefully start reading minds.

This kind of technology, also known as electrocorticography – or ECoG – has been around since the 1950s in order to identify which part of the brain causes seizures in persons with severe epilepsy. Scientists have taken this technology and combined it with a special kind of software that can study how the brain produces speech and thoughts.


During the experiment, patients were asked to think of vowel sounds. With the signals and brain activity that were produced, researchers moved a cursor across the screen of the computer.

“We begin by asking the patient to imagine the sounds ‘ahh’ or ‘ohh.’ Then we record these signals by using a nano-recognition technique and, for a lack of a better word, it ‘guesses’ which sound is coming from which part of the brain, and from there we can deduce which signal produces that kind of sound,” said Dr. Gerwin Schalk, the lead researcher of ECoG at the Wadsworth Center in a telephone interview.

“From our 97 percent success rate, it is safe to assume that this program can in fact determine which signal is which sound,” he said.

Although the technology has been altered slightly from the 1950’s, the applications have stayed the same. With this kind of experiment, doctors hope to apply the technology to help the severely disabled or paralyzed or anyone who is unable to communicate through normal speech. However, doctors haven’t stopped at simply moving a cursor across the screen or determining what sound the patient is thinking.

At the Albany Medical Center where Schalk has been pursuing this experiment, his team has been working to address different kinds of debilitations by slightly manipulating the ECoG into focusing on something else. By detecting these electrodes from the surface of the brain, patients have shown success in controlling a virtual robotic arm with just their thoughts and brain activity.

One of Schalk’s most recent volunteer patients had been seriously disabled due to a severe case of epilepsy and no longer had control of his limbs. During the test trial, Schalk would give the patient a couple commands and ask him to just think about doing them.

For example, he would ask the patient to close the virtual hand, and the hand on the screen would close. He would ask him to lift the arm up, and the arm would lift up. There was no physical movement on the patient’s part, only the virtual movement of the arm on the authority of the patient’s thoughts.

Given the amount of success they had, Schalk said he is very hopeful for the future.

“We are still quite a ways away from our end goal, and from all of the applications we hope to pursue, but I’m very enthusiastic,” he said.

“Being the devil’s advocate, I’m sure people are going to grow worried that scientists are going to look into artificial intelligence or something like Spielberg’s ‘A.I’ type thing,” said Stephanie Salcedo, a senior in College of Arts and Sciences. “If this was my life, and I had a very intense health problem and there was this experimental testing that could help out other people as well as myself, I would participate. I feel like the pros would out-weigh the cons.”


On top of ECoG, a new technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging has been introduced to the study. Instead of relying entirely on electrodes to send signals, this technique tracks the blood flow in the brain in order to help identify what words or phrases someone may be thinking about.

Dr. Brian Pasley’s team of neuroscientists and surgeons at the UC Berkeley has been studying these patterns of blood flow and how they connect to certain images. Their focus on the superior temporal gyrus of the brain—or STG—has led them create a kind of model that would better understand the process of brain imaging.

Pasley’s team works with the same kinds of patients as Schalk: people who have been severely affected by epilepsy and volunteer patients who already have the electrode sensors placed on their brain.

“We began by monitoring the patient for about a week with an electro-grid attached to the electrodes. During that time, we started to play with how different sounds affect the brain activity,” Pasley said.

The researchers would play an audio clip of different words and sounds and as they monitored the brain the electro-grid was recording the patient’s brain activity.

With the help of the electro-grid and the computer, the team tried to construct a model that helped map out which sections of the brain were shooting off signals when different frequencies of sound were played.

“The better the model, the better the guess of brain response,” Pasley said.

Once the model was mastered, the team took it to the patients once again. This time, when they were asked to imagine words and phrases, the team already knew which sound was produced by which signal and was able to guess which words they were thinking about and even translate the words back into sound based on the wavelengths the computer model presented.

“This model allows us to examine the process of speech recognition in the brain. We have to analyze the sound and then extract meaning in hope of applying it to its ultimate potential, which we hope could become a type of neural prosthetic,” Pasley said.

The doctors said they have come a long way in their research, and are excited to continue stretching boundaries and diving deeper into the human mind.

“We’re trying to learn more about a person through their thoughts and how we can utilize these results and turn them into something extraordinary” Schalk said.


Some Boston University students said they were amazed to hear about this experiment.

“It’s incredible to think that such high-functioning and intelligent minds are creating ways to help those whose brain has failed them; the mind can be an incredible creator or a person’s fatal flaw,” said CAS Freshman Jennifer Thatcher.

“Neuroscience is still evolving, and there’s still so much we don’t know about the brain, but if they’re already this far in their experiments, imagine what we can do in a decade or 20 years from now. People who have lost language can live normal lives, or at least have a better standard of living,” Salcedo said.

These experiments are well underway and producing impressive results.

“If we can reach our goal, we would be able to help improve the quality of life for many people that have suffered from epilepsy, paralysis, etc. The research hasn’t just focused on making discoveries, it has a lot to do with finding a cure for the patient, which is the ultimate goal,” Pasley said.

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One Comment

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