Today, researchers can record and interpret brain signals with such sophistication that “mind reading” is close to becoming a reality. One of the young leaders in the field is computational neuroscientist Liam Paninski, who uses statistics to decipher electrical signals from the brain.
Because neurons fire in complex patterns, it’s tricky to identify which neurons encode which actions and how stimuli provoke them. Paninski creates mathematical models to make sense of those patterns. As an undergraduate at Brown University, he developed an algorithm that decodes arm-movement commands from the brain. Equipped with this neural code, Brown neuroscientist John Donoghue developed an implant that lets paralyzed people use their minds to control a robotic arm, manipulate a cursor, or play video games (see “Implanting Hope”).
Now a professor at Columbia, Paninski is using his statistical methods to decode vision. In the future, he hopes, implanted “video cards” may restore sight to the blind by translating digital images into neural patterns. He’s also exploring ways to treat epilepsy; as researchers decode neural signals more precisely, Paninski hopes to one day create a complete map of normal brain activity. Using the map, researchers could detect deviations such as epileptic events. Paninski envisions a warning device that will recognize abnormal events early, so that patients can take drugs to stave off a seizure–or at least get to a safe place before it begins.