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Mind-reading computer may help coma patients speak out their mind

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First Posted: Jun 01, 2013 10:09 AM EDT
Researchers from a university in Ontario, Canada developed a way to capture "yes" and "no" answers of patients in a vegetative state.

Researchers from a university in Ontario, Canada developed a way to capture "yes" and "no" answers of patients in a vegetative state. Credit:University of Western Ontario

Coma patients answering "yes" or "no" when asked? That might be possible in the near future as researchers from the University of Western Ontario in Canada developed a computer that can read minds and may one day help communicating with patients in comatose.

The team led by Lorina Naci, postdoctoral fellow at the Brain and Mind Institute of Western, conducted a study titled "The Brain's Silent Messenger: Using Selective Attention to Decode Human Thought for Brain-Based Communication" and published their findings Wednesday in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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In the study, the researchers utilized neuroimaging to interpret human thoughts when asked questions and providing specific answers. The results of the study may pave the way for new means of trying to communicate with patients in coma.

"The interpretation of human thought from brain activity, without recourse to speech or action, is one of the most provoking and challenging frontiers of modern neuroscience. In particular, patients who are fully conscious and awake, yet, due to brain damage, are unable to show any behavioral responsivity, expose the limits of the neuromuscular system and the necessity for alternate forms of communication," the abstract of the study summarized.

During the experiment, the participants were asked to focus on specific answers such as "yes" or "no" in response to simple questions such as "Do you have brothers and sisters?" or "Are your married?"

The participants were not allowed to utter their answers but just focus and think about their response.

"This novel method allowed healthy individuals to answers questions asked in the scanner, simply by paying attention to the word they wanted to convey. By looking at their brain activity we were able to correctly decode the correct answers for each individual," Naci explained through a press release.

Naci shared the information that most of the volunteers in the research conveyed their replies in roughly three minutes while doing a brain scan. She said this window is perfect if experts want to communicate using brain-computer interfaces.The researchers were also able to decode 90 percent of the answers based on the brain activity demonstrated by the volunteers. 

"The strengths of this technique, especially its ease of use, robustness, and rapid detection, may maximize the chances that any such patient will be able to achieve brain-based communication," the lead researcher expounded.

Naci and her colleagues are trying the technology and technique to communicate with non-responsive patients that are possibly misdiagnosed patients in vegetative state.

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