Mind-reading speller: can write down words straight out of your thoughts

A participant focuses at a display that guides the letter encoding. The person generates a specific brain activation pattern. This activation pattern is allocated to the letter

Forget voice recognition software. Now, researchers have come up with a device that can literally read your mind and translate it into words, one letter at a time. Their work was published online on June 28, in Current Biology.

Dr. Bettina Sorger, from Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, and collaborators, including a researcher from Aachen University, have designed a novel brain-computer interface that relies on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to spell letters out of mental tasks. The innovative "mind reading" device is the first of its kind, and is aimed towards severely motor-disabled patients who are incapable of communicating naturally, although being fully conscious and awake.

Dr. Sorger, a native of Oschersleben, Saxony-Anhalt, tells The Munich Times that their new prototype offers many advantages over currently available devices, which are mainly scalp EEG-based. "Although EEG-based approaches still constitute the current state-of-the-art in BCI (Brain-computer interface) research and its practical applications, our proposed method offers new possibilities," Dr. Sorger continued, "It provides an alternative brain-based communication means which may be useful in acute stages of the LIS when other communication tools are not immediately available." The uses would be ground-breaking. "Moreover, it might be applied in patient populations so far not benefiting from EEG-based BCI systems, e.g., in complete LIS (Locked-in syndrome, which means a complete quadrapalegic) patients, who do not have any residual motor abilities left."

This new device uses fMRI to track down brain activity as reflected in levels of blood flow, measured while a patient performs specific timed mental imagery tasks. These tasks produce differences in blood flow which are then interpreted as specific letters by the "mind reading" device. The new device also allows back-and-forth communication within a single fMRI scanning session. Patients have been able to catch up with this new technique within an hour and where able to answer simple questions. 

As for future plans Dr. Sorger and her team seek to make this technology portable and affordable, and to improve the letter encoding time. Right now it take 50 seconds for the machine to "read your thoughts", so it can take a while to have a conversation.

Original Article:
"A Real-time fMRI-based Spelling Device Immediately Enabling Robust Motor-independent Communication" (DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.05.022).


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