New MRI technology could allow those without motor functions to communicate

new mri technology could allow those without motor functions to communicateParanoids of the world, prepare to get very worried indeed: There is a brain scanner in existence that could, in theory, actually be able to read your mind and tell you what you’re thinking – as long as you’re thinking hard enough.

It sounds like some kind of joke, but it’s actually a new generation of functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining that might be used to help people who are completely paralyzed communicate by reading the blood flow in their brains as they concentrate on spelling out messages. New research that appears in the Current Biology journal from Cell Press describes a current study into using a noninvasive device that would act as fMRI which could translate the different blood flow patterns created by concentrating on different letters into the words that are being spelled out by the user.

The technology is based on earlier research by British neuroscientists Adrian Owen which used fMRI to allow a man who had previously been believed to have been in a permanent vegetative state for five years to answer questions with a simple “yes” and “no” (Everyone who is now terrified about the fates of others who had been believed to be vegetative before this technology was created, feel free to fret now). The new version of the technology moves far beyond a binary system by being able to recognize twenty-seven different blood flow patterns, one for every letter of the English alphabet and an additional pattern to denote a blank space between words.

“The work of Adrian Owen and colleagues led me to wonder whether it might even become possible to use fMRI, mental tasks, and appropriate experimental designs to freely encode thoughts, letter-by-letter, and therewith enable back-and-forth communication in the absence of motor behavior,” explained Bettina Sorger, a researcher from Maastricht University working on the project, who describes the technology as a “novel spelling device” that “constitutes an alternative approach to motor-independent communication.”

Although still in the early stages, the technology is already being hailed as a breakthrough by neurologists. Dr. Guy Williams, who works at Cambridge’s Wolfson Brain Imagining Center, told the BBC that “the technique may need some adaptation to be widely applicable to patients who might have impaired awareness or ability to concentrate on the required task,” he said, “but it is nonetheless an important demonstration of what these scans can in principle tell us about the functioning of an individual’s brain.”

Elaine Snell of the British Neuroscience Association agreed, saying that “this means of communication will make a huge difference to the quality of [a patient in a persistent vegetative state’s] life and to that of their familieis. This kind of technology can only get better. It’s very exciting.”