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Communications of the ACM


Reading Brains

patient wearing cap with electrodes

A patient wears a cap studded with electrodes during a demonstration of a noninvasive brain-machine interface by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne in January 2013.

Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images

Mind reading has traditionally been the domain of mystics and science fiction writers. Increasingly, however, it is becoming the province of serious science.

A new study from the laboratory of Marcel van Gerven of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands demonstrates it is possible to figure out what people are looking at by scanning their brains. When volunteers looked at handwritten letters, a computer model was able to produce fuzzy images of the letters they were seeing, based only on the volunteers' brain activity.

The new work—which builds on an earlier mathematical model by Bertrand Thirion of the Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control in Gif-sur-Yvette, France—establishes a simple, elegant brain-decoding algorithm, says Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Such decoding algorithms eventually could be used to create more sophisticated brain-machine interfaces, he says, to allow neurologically impaired people to manipulate computers and machinery with their thoughts.


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