Canadian Researchers Can Read Minds (or At Least Beverage Orders)

February 23, 2009 09:02 AM
by Emily Coakley
A recent study using infrared beams to watch blood flow in the brain suggests that inexpensive technology could help read a person’s mind.

Small Study Shows Great Potential

Mind reading, once relegated to science fiction, might soon be a reality, at least in a limited form. Researchers at the University of Toronto have created a device that uses infrared beams to measure blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, which is part of the brain used in determining preferences.

In a study published in the Journal of Neural Engineering, a small group of adults rated the appeal of a list of eight beverages, and then put on headbands that had fiber optic strands on them. The strands beamed infrared light into the person’s scalp and brain. The participants then looked at pictures of the drinks and were asked to silently decide which one they preferred.

“As activated areas of the brain receive more blood and more oxygen, the optical properties [of the brain tissue] change. This allows us to infer the pattern of activity beneath,” said Sheena Luu, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto who worked on the research, in an interview with Time magazine.

In other words, researchers were able to get a good idea of the participants’ thoughts by watching their brains react. Luu and Tom Chau, a professor who studies pediatric rehabilitation engineering, were able to correctly interpret the beverage preferences 80 percent of the time.
The British newspaper the Times says the infrared radiation is harmless, and that researchers “are hoping to develop a brain-reading headset to help disabled children express themselves.”

Luu and Chau’s technology is less expensive than previous research into mind reading, which involved magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). According to Time magazine, there are still some bugs to work out: mainly, that blood flow could indicate not just a preference but also a strong aversion to something. But Chau told the magazine that algorithms could help.

“It’s really just a matter of refining the algorithms. We envision this at the very least as a preference detector that allows people to direct their own care,” Chau said.

As technology advances, thought-based devices that once seemed far-fetched are being explored in the laboratory. For example, the United States Army last year gave scientists at three American universities a $4 million, five-year contract to create “thought helmets” that would allow soldiers to communicate with each other using only brain waves. The thought helmets will probably take several years, if not decades, to develop.

Related Topic: Mind control in the toy aisle

The toy industry plans to release games that allow kids to move objects with brain waves. The game, called The Force Trainer (as in Star Wars), uses an electroencephalograph in a wireless head set to move a small ball through a chute. Mattel is also planning to release a similar toy this year.

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