It sounds like something from a science-fiction novel: communicating with another person not by speaking or gesticulating, but simply by thinking.
Mental telepathy mumbo-jumbo, right?
Nope. According to scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine, this form of communication has been occurring for a while in their labs, marking the first occasions in which a person's thoughts have been channeled across a computer screen.
"We are truly starting to read the language of thought," author Eric C. Leuthardt said in a university news release. "This is one of the earliest examples, to a very, very small extent, of what is called 'reading minds' -- detecting what people are saying to themselves in their internal dialogue."
The secret lies in a small surgical implant -- embedded in a patient's brain -- which is programmed to identify certain brainwave patterns that get activated when the patient thinks about a specific sound.
There are huge applications for people who've suffered from brain or vocal-chord damage.
Here's the method: Test subjects (in this case, epilepsy patients) were outfitted with brain-computer interfaces, which were implanted in the regions of the brain controlling speech. Patients then were instructed to think about one of four particular sounds ("oo," "ee," "ay" or "a," as in "hat"). The act of thinking about those sounds created brainwave patterns that the interfaces identified and transmitted to a computer screen. By the end of the experiment, patients could control the movement of a cursor on a computer monitor simply by thinking of a particular sound.
The research was published this week in The Journal of Neural Engineering.
So, back to the science-fiction novel analogy. It's pretty spooky to think about how far this research can go -- and what could happen if the technology were to be adopted for non-therapeutic purposes. It's conceivable that the day will come when we can all get our heads implanted and have computer-assisted conversations with family members scattered across the country -- without even opening our mouths or striking a keypad.
The only thing we'd need to do is think.
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