Electronic telepathy breakthrough hailed

 

A first step has been taken towards hearing imagined speech using a form of electronic telepathy, it has been claimed.

Scientists believe in future it may be possible to "decode" the thoughts of brain-damaged patients who cannot speak.

In a study described by one British expert as "remarkable", US researchers were able to reconstruct heard words from brain wave patterns.

A computer program was used to predict what spoken words volunteers had listened to by analysing their brain activity.

Previous research has shown that imagined words activate similar brain areas as words that are actually uttered.

The hope is that imagined words can be uncovered by "reading" the brain waves they produce.

"This is huge for patients who have damage to their speech mechanisms because of a stroke or Lou Gehrig's disease and can't speak," said Professor Robert Knight, one of the researchers from the University of California at Berkeley.

"If you could eventually reconstruct imagined conversations from brain activity, thousands of people could benefit."

However, the study involved the use of electrodes inserted through the skull on to the brains of epileptic patients.

A system sophisticated enough to achieve the same result non-invasively remains a long way off.

Prof Knight acknowledged that the research was at an early stage and controlling movement with brain activity was "relatively simple" compared with reconstructing language. But he added: "This experiment takes that earlier work to a whole new level."

The findings are reported in the online journal Public Library of Science Biology.

Scientists enlisted the help of people undergoing brain surgery to investigate the cause of untreatable epileptic seizures.

To pinpoint where the seizures were being generated, neurosurgeons cut a hole in the skull and placed an array of electrodes on to the surface of the brain.

In the case of 15 seizure patients, brain activity from the temporal lobe was recorded as they listened to five to 10 minutes of conversation.

Two different computational models were devised to match the spoken sounds to patterns of activity from the electrodes.

Patients then heard a single word, and the models were used to predict what it was from the earlier analysis.

The better of the two programmes reproduced a synthesised sound realistic enough for the scientists to guess the original word.

There is evidence that the brain breaks sound down to its component acoustic frequencies, with speech spanning the range from about 1 Hertz (cycles per second) to 8,000 Hertz.

Study leader Dr Brian Pasley, also from Berkeley, said: "We are looking at which cortical sites are increasing activity at particular acoustic frequencies, and from that, we map back to the sound."

He compared the technique to a pianist "hearing" the music a colleague is playing in a sound-proof room simply by looking at the keys.

Dr Pasley added: "This research is based on sounds a person actually hears, but to use this for a prosthetic device, these principles would have to apply to someone who is imagining speech.

"There is some evidence that perception and imagery may be pretty similar in the brain. If you can understand the relationship well enough between the brain recordings and sound, you could either synthesise the actual sound a person is thinking, or just write out the words with a type of interface device."

The research builds on previous work on the way animals encode sound in the brain's auditory cortex.

Scientists have used brain recordings to guess the words ferrets were read, even though the animals were unable to understand them.

British expert Professor Jan Schnupp, from Oxford University, said: "This study by Pasley and others is really quite remarkable. Neuroscientists have of course long believed that the brain essentially works by translating aspects of the external world, such as spoken words, into patterns of electrical activity. But proving that this is true by showing that it is possible to translate these activity patterns back into the original sound (or at least a fair approximation of it) is nevertheless a great step forward, and it paves the way to rapid progress toward biomedical applications.

"Some may worry ... that this sort of technology might lead to 'mind-reading' devices which could one day be used to eavesdrop on the privacy of our thoughts. Such worries are unjustified. It is worth remembering that Pasley and colleagues could only get their technique to work because epileptic patients had co-operated closely and willingly with them, and allowed a large array of electrodes to be placed directly on the surface of their brains. No non-invasive brain scanning technique in existence is able to provide the very fine temporal and the spatial resolution needed to make proper mind-reading possible."

PA

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
news
Life and Style
love + sex
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United 1 player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Engineer - Managed Services Provider

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Eng...

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot