Making progress on decoding thoughts from the human brain

What if you’re able to register other people speaking to you, understand them, but not have the ability to talk back? Professor Robert T Knight, University of California, Berkeley, is working towards helping people who suffer from these kinds of impediments.

Professor Knight begins his lecture at the Lund University brain symposium with showing the audience a video of himself trying to have a conversation with a person with Broca’s aphasia. Aphasia is a language disorder which greatly reduces an individual’s ability to produce language and form comprehensible sentences.

In the video demonstration, Knight asks the patient, who suffers from Broca’s aphasia as the result of a stroke, a series of very simple questions. However, the answers that are delivered back to him consists of garbled, incomprehensible speech. In the short clip, the patient clearly understands Professor Knight’s questions and one can only imagine how incredibly frustrating it would be not to be able to actualise the message your brain is trying to convey.

Knight’s is committed and his research is without a doubt inspiring –  the ultimate goal being to create an implantable prosthetic device which can pick up the words of the speech-impaired person mouth refuses to utter, and transmit them in a way which is understandable to the surrounding people. Now, this might sound like an impossible task but scientific progress might be getting closer to making it happen. In his lecture, Knight presents several interesting finds and methods that can be used to “decode thought from the human brain”.

Perhaps most importantly, scientists know the areas of the brain which are involved in understanding and producing language, and as his lecture also presents, these are the same areas of the brain that are activated when imagining language.

The next step in his research is therefore finding a way to capture the brain signals that imagine words and use them to decode the message trying to be conveyed. An amazing feat if completed, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I emphasise that this would be completely life changing for the people affected by these kind of communication disorders.

The symposium The Amazing Brain was held as part of the Science Week The Amazing Brain. Read other blogs covering the Science Week (in Swedish and English).

See Robert T. Knight’s presentation Decoding Thought from the Human Brain.

The rest of the symposium presentations can be found here (apart from Edvard Moser’s presentation)

Text by Alexander Dorling, Media and Communication studies, Lund University


september 14, 2017

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