Technology might not be advanced enough yet to let people read someone else’s mind, but researchers are at least inching closer to helping people to read and control their own. In a study presented last week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, scientists used a combination of brain-scanning and feedback techniques to train subjects to move a cursor up and down with their thoughts. The subjects could perform this task after just five minutes of training.
The scientists hope to use this information to help addicts learn to control their own brain states and, consequently, their cravings.
Scientists have previously shown that people can learn to consciously control their brain activity if they’re shown their brain activity data in real time—a technique called real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Researchers have used this technology effectively to teach people to control chronic pain and depression. They’ve been pursuing similar feedback methods to help drug users kick their addictions.
But these efforts have been difficult to put into practice. Part of the problem is that scientists have had to choose which part of the brain to focus on, based on existing knowledge of neuroscience. But that approach may miss out on areas that are also important for the particular function under study.
In addition, focusing on a limited region adds extra noise to the system—much like looking too closely at just one swatch of a Pointillist painting—the mix of odd colors doesn’t make sense until you step back and see how the dots fit together. Psychologist Anna Rose Childress, Jeremy Magland, and their colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have overcome this issue by designing a new system of whole-brain imaging and pairing it with an algorithm that let them determine which regions of the brain are most centrally involved in a certain thought process.
“I think it’s very exciting, and I think it’s likely to be just the tip of a large iceberg of possibilities,” says Christopher deCharms, a neuroscientist and founder of Omneuron, a company dedicated to using real-time fMRI to visualize brain function. “It’s a small case demonstration that you can do this and you can do it in real time.”
Childress asked 11 healthy controls and three cocaine addicts to watch a feedback screen while alternately envisioning two 30-second scenarios: Repeatedly swatting a tennis ball to someone, and navigating from room to room in a familiar place. By analyzing whole-brain activity, researchers found that a part of the brain called the supplementary motor area was most active during an imagined game of tennis. They then linked this pattern to an upward movement of a computer cursor. They did the same with the navigation task, linking it to downward movement of the cursor. After four cycles or fewer—less than five minutes of training—the subjects had learned to alternate between the two states of mind, as well as associate each one with its corresponding cursor position. From there onward, they could move the cursor up or down with their thoughts.