Scientists have picked up fragments of people’s thoughts by decoding the brain activity caused by words that they hear.
The feat has given researchers fresh insight into how the brain processes language and raises the prospect of devices that can return speech to the speechless.
Though in its infancy, the work paves the way for brain implants that could monitor a person’s thoughts and speak words and sentences as they imagine them.
Such devices could transform the lives of thousands of people who lose the ability to speak as a result of a stroke or other medical conditions.
Experiments on 15 patients in the US showed that a computer could decipher their brain activity and play back words they heard, though at times the words were difficult to recognize.
“This is exciting in terms of the basic science of how the brain decodes what we hear,” said Robert Knight, a senior member of the team and director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “The next step is to test whether we can decode a word when a person imagines it. That might sound spooky, but this could really help patients. Perhaps in 10 years it will be as common as grandmother getting a new hip.”
The study is published in the journal PLoS Biology.
The scientists ran tests on patients who were already in hospital for an operation to treat intractable epilepsy. In that procedure, patients have the top of their skull removed and a net of electrodes laid across the surface of their brain. Doctors use the electrodes to identify the precise trigger point of the patient’s fit, before removing the tissue. Sometimes, patients wait for days before they have enough seizures to locate the source of the problem.
Scientist Brian Pasley enrolled 15 patients to take part. He played each a series of words for five to 10 minutes while recording their brain activity. He then created computer programs that could recognize sounds encoded in the brain waves.
He next played a collection of new words to the patients to see if the algorithms could pick out and repeat recognizable words.
The scientists got their best results when they recorded activity in the superior temporal gyrus, part of the brain that sits to one side, above the ear.
“I didn’t think it could possibly work, but Brian did it,” Knight said. “His model can reproduce the sound the patient heard and you can actually recognize the word, though not at a perfect level.”
The prospect of reading minds has led to ethical concerns that the technology could be used covertly or to interrogate criminals and terrorists.
Knight said that is in the realm of science fiction.
“To reproduce what we did, you would have to open up someone’s skull and they would have to cooperate,” he said.