Article first published as Top Neuroscience Discoveries in 2012: Researchers Identify Specific Words and Thoughts in The Brain on Technorati by Darin L. Hammond.
We can now pinpoint a single thought firing.
Our close cousin's thoughts
The DNA of a chimpanzee is almost identical to our own, with more than 99% similarity. Our close evolutionary relationship provides great benefits to humans, such as helping us to gain knowledge about our own brains, as they too are similar.
For example, studying chimps assisted in recent advances in neuroscience, allowing scientists to map the brain with greater accuracy. Learning more about the human brain empowers our species with greater knowledge of our minds, and assists in the creation of new technology as well.
On November 21, 2012,cognitive neuroscientists from MIT and Boston University revealed how they pinpointed a single thought in a chimp’s brain.
Machines can already eavesdrop on our brains to distinguish which words we are listening to, but ... [they] wanted to get beyond the brain's representation of the words themselves and identify the activity that underlies their meaning.
They tracked the thought of a block's color, using an fMRI functional magnetic resonance imager: this device employs spinning magnets to photograph the brain as it lights up with electrical activity.
Scott Routley communicates after 12 years.
Ensembles of Neurons
An image of one thought had been impossible to map previously, but the improved resolution refined and detailed microscopic areas of the brain, specifically neuron groups found to hold these single thoughts. Researchers named the small bundles of neurons that hold a thought an “ensemble.”
The original word refers to a small group of musicians playing in unison—just as music ensembles create beautiful sound, neural ensembles fire together in order to create meaning.
Pinpointing two thoughts that oscillate
Next, the scientists monitored an ensemble that encoded the shape of the block. Locating a second thought in the chimp’s brain represented a significant achievement because researchers could now track two related thoughts held in the conscious mind at the same time.
After finding the color and shape ensembles, the scientists could watch two conscious thoughts held in the mind simultaneously. We call this multitasking: an impressive ability shared by chimps, humans, and computers.
The scientists recorded remarkable, magical images: prior to this experiment, they had no idea how the brain would handle two conscious thoughts simultaneously. They found this surprising—the ensembles oscillated, meaning that the thought ensemble for color lit up, dimmed, and almost instantly the shape ensemble fired. On and off, the two brain areas blinked, allowing each ensemble to engage.
Researchers found that the two thoughts remained in the conscious mind by taking turns. The oscillating neurons can handle only a limited number of items at a time, so taking turns makes room for more thoughts. Knowledge like this could prove valuable in training our brains to think, learn, and remember more efficiently, in addition to spawning new technologies that work with the mind.
The technology at work on a human
Brain technology has already produced powerful results. The news media reported an example on November 14, 2012. Dr. Adrian Owen used the fMRI with a vegetative patient, Scott Routley, who has been unable to speak or move for 12 years. For Scott, these years were lonely and sad, trapped in a body without the ability to communicate or move. He could not even communicate if he was in pain.
Using the fMRI, Dr. Owen identified a positive and negative response from Scott, who indicated that he was suffering. Doctors asked him, for example, "Are you in pain right now, Scott?" He answered, "no," not out loud but in his mind, and the doctors understood. He communicated to the outside world for the first time in 12 years.
Doctors can now regulate the man's pain efficiently: Scott speaks through his mind when he suffers, and doctors administer pain medication. This amounts to a miracle for Scott—the ability to communicate yes or no means comfort instead of suffering for a human being. Consider what this can do for people in pain across the globe.
Identifying words in the brain
That same week, scientists in Spain revealed the discovery of neurons that fired when a person thought of one word. They mapped the neural ensembles coded for a single word, like "book" or "house." Researchers saw the word in the man’s brain, without speech. Like a science fiction story, a word was communicated through the brain alone. While full mind-reading may be far-off, the map of the human brain develops daily, improving how we understand ourselves.
Thinking into the future, potential is bound only by human imagination. As we learn more about the brain, technologies and their applications increase exponentially; we understand more about what it means to be human, and conscious.
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