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Novel brain monitoring technique could lead to ‘mind-reading’ devices

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Many movies and novels speculate as to what it would be like to peek inside a person’s mind and know what he or she is thinking. But up until recently, such a skill has only existed in the realm of science fiction.

Now, scientists may be turning fantasy into reality, having created a novel brain monitoring technique that could lead to the development of “mind-reading” applications in the distant future.

Utilizing a series of electrodes attached to portions of a patient’s brain, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine were able to eavesdrop on a person’s brain activity as he or she performed normal, daily functions – a process they termed “intracranial recording.”

The team conducted a number of these recordings on three epilepsy patients who had been admitted to the hospital for observation, allowing the researchers to identify a brain region that is activated when a person performs mathematical calculations. Additionally, researchers were able to determine that this area of the brain is similarly activated when an individual uses numbers – or even quantitative expressions such as “more than” – in everyday conversation.

Detailed in the journal Nature Communications, the findings provide a new framework for studying how the brain works under normal day-to-day circumstances.

“The beauty of this paper is not just to report another experimental finding, but it is a breakthrough in terms of methodological advancement in terms of being able to record from brain activity in real life, natural conditions,” lead author Dr. Josef Parvizi, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and director of Stanford’s Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program (SHICEP), told FoxNews.com.

As the director of SHICEP, Parvizi was able to direct this research on seizure patients who had been admitted to the hospital for epilepsy surgery evaluations.  During these visits, patients have a portion of their skull temporarily removed so that intracranial electrodes can be attached to the exposed brain surface.  They are then monitored for up to a week as the electrodes pick up electrical activity in the brain, allowing neurologists to observe the patients’ seizures and pinpoint the exact portion of the brain from which the seizures are originating.

Throughout the course of their hospital stay, these patients are mostly confined to their rooms, as they cannot be disconnected from the monitoring apparatus.  However, they are comfortable, alert and free of pain – making them great test subjects for understanding how the human brain operates in everyday scenarios.

To test their intracranial recording technique, Parvizi and his team recruited three patient volunteers, asking them to solve mathematical equations and various true/false questions that appeared on a computer screen. Some of the true/false questions required the use of simple mathematical calculation, such as verifying whether or not 2 + 2 = 5.  

“They had to press ‘1’ for correct or ‘2’ for incorrect for a statement like, ‘I had coffee today,” or, “I took a cab this morning,” Parvizi explained. “So the answer to the first question is ‘yes’ and the answer to the second question is of course ‘no,’ because they are in the hospital; they can’t take a cab.”

For posterity, the entirety of the patients’ stay at the hospital was monitored by a video camera.

After analyzing the volunteer’s electrode records from these experiments, the researchers saw a spike in the electrical activity of the brain’s intraperietal sulcus when the patients performed calculations.  They also found that activity in this brain region spiked several other times throughout the day, prompting Parvizi and his team to turn to their video surveillance to better understand what initiated the electrical bursts.

The footage revealed that when a patient mentioned a number – or even spoke in quantitative terms, such as saying the phrases “more than” or “many” – the same spikes were seen in the intraperietal sulcus.  This finding was mostly unexpected for the researchers.

Given the success of their study, Parvizi said their intracranial recordings could completely change the way researchers observe the brain.  He noted that current brain monitoring techniques, such as the use of functional magnetic resonance imagining (MRI), do not provide a very accurate picture of the human brain as it is in normal settings.

“The MRI scanner is several tons, and you can’t actually take an MRI scanner home, but this (apparatus) is something you can walk with – as a patient of course,” Parvizi said.  “So subjects that are implanted with these spying electrodes, they were walking and talking… We have a new method by which we can study the brain activity in natural environments, so it’s totally different than other experiments.”

Parvizi said this technique has the potential to lead to very beneficial medical applications, especially for patients whose brains or nervous systems have been severely damaged.

“If we’re able to decipher the code of brain activity, let’s say beyond mathematics, then patients who are unable to speak, for example (due to) stroke, or are unable to move, we could use this deciphering method to communicate with machines so that machines can do (the talking),” Parvizi said.  “Or we can somehow try to understand what’s going on in the brain activity without even patients talking.”

While some experts have speculated that Parvizi’s new technique could one day be used in a sinister way to read a patient’s private thoughts, Parvizi said that is still a very fictional concept.

“This is too far-fetched.  We are not there yet.  We are light years away from mind-reading,” Parvizi said. “I don’t want people to get scared (thinking) doctors are mind-reading their patients.”

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