Mind Reading Machine Shocks Scientists, Recognizes Words

Left: Electrode grids at the end of the green and orange wires collect speech signals. Right: Close up of new electrode array.
Left: Electrode grids at the end of the green and orange wires collect speech signals. Right: Close-up of new electrode array. (University of Utah Department of Neurosurgery photo)

(CBS) Scientists at the University of Utah have moved one step closer to using electrodes to read someone's mind.

No need to think nefariously. It's all for a good purpose - helping people who are paralyzed speak and operate machines.

In the experiment, doctors implanted tiny electrodes on the brain of an epileptic with severe seizures. The man already had part of his skull removed so doctors could treat his epilepsy.

According to a statement: "Scientists recorded brain signals as the patient repeatedly read each of 10 words that might be useful to a paralyzed person: yes, no, hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, hello, goodbye, more and less."

"Later, they tried figuring out which brain signals represented each of the 10 words. When they compared any two brain signals - such as those generated when the man said the words 'yes' and 'no' - they were able to distinguish brain signals for each word 76 percent to 90 percent of the time."

But the doctors ran into trouble when they looked at all 10 signals simultaneously. Their accuracy dropped to as low as 28 percent.

"This is proof of concept," says Bradley Greger, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the university. "We've proven these signals can tell you what the person is saying well above chance. But we need to be able to do more words with more accuracy before it is something a patient really might find useful."

The hope, they say, is to one day help patients who are "locked in" and have very few, if any, ways to communicate. That includes patients with advanced-stage Lou Gehrig's disease.

Part of the cool geek factor here is that scientists used a new kind of electrode, called microECoGs. It sits on top of the brain, but doesn't penetrate. That makes it safer to place electrodes on sensitive areas. Doctors are already using them to help severe epileptics.

In this case, scientists placed a net of 16 miniature electrodes and collected a web of data, which later helped them get such high accuracy.

The full press release.

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