When do scientific advances cross the line between exciting progress over to a frightening chapter in a futuristic fantasy novel? How about when those advances intrude uncomfortably into the human brain, harvesting thoughts and recording them?
A group of researchers at Stanford University have taken this leap into mad science with experimental “intracranial recording”. Or, put simply, they’ve taken the first step towards mind reading using electronic monitoring of brain activity.
Using a novel method, the researchers collected the first solid evidence that the pattern of brain activity seen in someone performing a mathematical exercise under experimentally controlled conditions is very similar to that observed when the person engages in quantitative thought in the course of daily life.
“We’re now able to eavesdrop on the brain in real life,” said Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and director of Stanford’s Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program…
His team’s method, called intracranial recording, provided exquisite anatomical and temporal precision and allowed the scientists to monitor brain activity when people were immersed in real-life situations…
The procedure involves temporarily removing a portion of a patient’s skull and positioning packets of electrodes against the exposed brain surface. For up to a week, patients remain hooked up to the monitoring apparatus while the electrodes pick up electrical activity within the brain…
During this whole time, patients remain tethered to the monitoring apparatus and mostly confined to their beds. But otherwise, except for the typical intrusions of a hospital setting, they are comfortable, free of pain and free to eat, drink, think, talk to friends and family in person or on the phone, or watch videos.
The electrodes implanted in patients’ heads are like wiretaps, each eavesdropping on a population of several hundred thousand nerve cells and reporting back to a computer.
In the study, participants’ actions were also monitored by video cameras throughout their stay. This allowed the researchers later to correlate patients’ voluntary activities in a real-life setting with nerve-cell behavior in the monitored brain region…
Afterward, Parvizi and his colleagues analyzed each volunteer’s daily electrode record, identified many spikes in intraparietal-sulcus activity that occurred outside experimental settings, and turned to the recorded video footage to see exactly what the volunteer had been doing when such spikes occurred…
“These nerve cells are not firing chaotically,” he said. “They’re very specialized, active only when the subject starts thinking about numbers. When the subject is reminiscing, laughing or talking, they’re not activated.” Thus, it was possible to know, simply by consulting the electronic record of participants’ brain activity, whether they were engaged in quantitative thought during nonexperimental conditions. (source)
Researchers are able to suggest all sorts of do-gooder applications for this technology: allowing stroke victims who can’t talk to communicate, for example.
But it isn’t a stretch at all to believe that this will one day be used in a more sinister fashion. It could be applied as a control mechanism, the basis of Big Brother technology like implantable chips for the human brain, or an interrogation tool. Would you really want someone to be able to take the very thoughts from your mind and interpret them?
Henry Greely, JD, the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law and steering committee chair of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, who is familiar with the study, waved off concerns about mind control. “Practically speaking, it’s not the simplest thing in the world to go around implanting electrodes in people’s brains. It will not be done tomorrow, or easily, or surreptitiously.”
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