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Brain MRI Can Picture What You’re Thinking

September 23, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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This is so cool it’s almost creepy: Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, reconstructed movies that test subjects had watched, using functional MRI scans to convert brain activity into fuzzy but eerily accurate moving images.

Eventually, we may be able to communicate nonverbally with people silenced by stroke or coma. Paralyzed individuals may be able to use their minds to operate computers.

You may be able to record your dreams for later playback when you’re awake. You may be able to hook yourself up to a device that projects three-dimensional holographic mental images around the room. The Thought Police may be able to suck all of your hopes and dreams right out of your skull. Aliens may already have this technology and may be using it to experiment on humankind by plucking random daydreams from random heads and playing them back to us, which could explain many of this season’s new TV shows.

Ahem. Sorry. But you have to admit the possibilities are staggering.

For a more measured assessment, we turn to Jack Gallant, PhD, director of the Gallant Lab at UC-Berkeley and coauthor of the study describing this breakthrough, which was published online Thursday in Current Biology:

This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.

Dr. Gallant was quoted in a UC-Berkeley news release that includes a video showing the original movies and the MRI-aided reconstructions, side by side.

The researchers say the ability to read others’ thoughts in full-color video is decades away. To get some idea of the distance the technology still must travel, check out the complexity of the process used to get even this far. Here’s a simplified summary of how the researchers did it:

Research team members watched two sets of Hollywood movie previews while fMRI measured blood flow through the visual cortex—the part of the brain that processes visual information. A computer program analyzed the brain activity from the first set of clips to learn to associate visual patterns with corresponding brain activity.

Brain activity from the second set of clips was used to test the movie reconstruction algorithm. The researchers fed the computer 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos so it could predict the brain activity that each clip would be most likely to trigger in each subject.

For each fraction of a second of footage, the computer merged the 100 YouTube clips that it decided were most similar to the original clip. Stringing together all of those “most similar” merged images produced a blurry reconstruction of the original movie.

So who needs Netflix? When can we sign up for Mentalflix?

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It’s Friday—time for one last Facebook post before the weekend.

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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