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Brain Scans May Let Paralyzed Communicate

June 29, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Communicating with people who are unable to speak or move came a step closer to reality with a new technique that uses functional MRI.

The technique builds on earlier uses of fMRI brain scans to assess consciousness in people categorized as being in an unconscious vegetative state and to enable them to answer yes or no questions.

A report on the new technique was published online Thursday in Current Biology. Lead author Bettina Sorger, PhD, a neurocognition researcher at Maastricht University in Maastricht, Netherlands, described the genesis of the idea:

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.

Dr. Sorger  was quoted in a news release from the publisher of Current Biology. Adrian Owen, PhD, holds the Canada Excellence Research  Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at Western University in London, Ontario.

After studying Dr. Owen’s work, Dr. Sorger and colleagues created the first real-time speller that works by reading brain activity via brain scans. Participants in the study voluntarily selected letters on a screen. For each letter, participants were asked to perform a particular mental task for a set period of time. That produced 27 distinct brain patterns, each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet or the equivalent of a space bar.

Each participant then held a miniconversation, consisting of two open questions and answers, spelling out responses using only the brain patterns. Everyone the researchers tested was able to successfully produce answers within a single one-hour session.

Ultimately, Dr. Sorger said, she would like to use a more portable and affordable technology to measure brain blood flow—perhaps functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

Whatever the scanning method, this technique could allow someone who is completely paralyzed and unable to speak nevertheless to communicate. Amazing.

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Acoustic Tweezers Capture Tiny Creatures with Ultrasound—that’s the headline.  To learn what the rest of this news release says, see our Facebook page.

Related seminar: Neuro and Musculoskeletal Imaging (all-new release; just out)


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