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Computer Reads Minds Using Brain Scans

August 20, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Nearer and nearer approaches the day when computers can read our minds. Researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have taken the latest step in that direction by teaching a computer to analyze functional MRI images of the brain and determine which letter a test subject was looking at.

Essentially, the researchers divided the brain scan into small areas known as voxels. The computer considered whether each voxel was “on” or “off”—reflecting whether that bit of the brain was being used at that moment. A mathematical model “taught” the computer how the voxels corresponded to pixels in hand-drawn letters being viewed by test subjects.

Using that model, the computer was able to reconstruct a fuzzy speckle pattern. Said lead researcher Marcel van Gerven, PhD:

After this, we did something new. We gave the model prior knowledge: we taught it what letters look like.

Dr. van Gerven continued: “This improved the recognition of the letters enormously. The model compares the letters to determine which one corresponds most exactly with the speckle image and then pushes the results of the image towards that letter. The result was the actual letter, a true reconstruction.”

Dr. van Gerven is a researcher with Radboud’s Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. He was quoted in a university news release. He is also senior author of an article about the research published online July 22 in NeuroImage. He and his colleagues plan to continue their explorations using a more powerful MRI scanner, hoping to make more-detailed images.

Teaching the model what letters look like isn’t cheating, Dr. van Gerven explained. “Our approach is similar to how we believe the brain itself combines prior knowledge with sensory information. For example, you can recognize the lines and curves in this article as letters only after you have learned to read.

“And this is exactly what we are looking for: models that show what is happening in the brain in a realistic fashion. We hope to improve the models to such an extent that we can also apply them to the working memory or to subjective experiences such as dreams or visualizations. Reconstructions indicate whether the model you have created approaches reality.”

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