The act of mind reading is something usually reserved for science-fiction movies but researchers in America have used a technique, usually associated with identifying epilepsy, for the first time to show that a computer can listen to our thoughts.
In a new study, scientists from Washington University demonstrated that humans can control a cursor on a computer screen using words spoken out loud and in their head, holding huge applications for patients who may have lost their speech through brain injury or disabled patients with limited movement.
By directly connecting the patient's brain to a computer, the researchers showed that the computer could be controlled with up to 90% accuracy even when no prior training was given.
Patients with a temporary surgical implant have used regions of the brain that control speech to "talk" to a computer for the first time, manipulating a cursor on a computer screen simply by saying or thinking of a particular sound.
"There are many directions we could take this, including development of technology to restore communication for patients who have lost speech due to brain injury or damage to their vocal cords or airway," says author Eric C. Leuthardt, MD, of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Scientists have typically programmed the temporary implants, known as brain-computer interfaces, to detect activity in the brain's motor networks, which control muscle movements.
"That makes sense when you're trying to use these devices to restore lost mobility -- the user can potentially engage the implant to move a robotic arm through the same brain areas he or she once used to move an arm disabled by injury," says Leuthardt, assistant professor of neurosurgery, of biomedical engineering and of neurobiology, "But that has the potential to be inefficient for restoration of a loss of communication."
Patients might be able to learn to think about moving their arms in a particular way to say hello via a computer speaker, Leuthardt explains. But it would be much easier if they could say hello by using the same brain areas they once engaged to use their own voices.
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The research appears April 7 in The Journal of Neural Engineering. This Journal contains many free articles that help scientists, clinicians and engineers understand, replace, repair and enhance the nervous system.