Canadian Science is Awesome

July 1, 2011

Rheanna Sand

Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadians! When it comes to science, our greatest contribution as a country so far has been the discovery of insulin by Frederick Banting and Charles Best in 1922, followed close behind by the Canadarm. Canada is also the birthplace of the theory of plate tectonics, CCD chips in video cameras, and near and dear to my line of work, site-directed mutagenesis of DNA (i.e. "playing God"). But we must not forget about the amazing discoveries being made every day in Universities and research centres from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, which we at Science in Seconds often highlight in our blog posts.

One that drew my attention this week comes from a group of scientists at the University of Western Ontario. Jason Gallivan and others published a paper in the June 29th issue of the Journal of Neuroscience detailing how human intentions could be decoded simply by analyzing fMRI readings. Some may call this "fMRI mind reading," others an "Orwellian nightmare," but whether you think it's useful or scary, you can't deny how awesome it is.



Now, they didn't quite get to the level of the pre-cogs in Minority Report, but they did do a lot with only some colourful brain scans. Given a human subject looking at a smaller cube on top of a bigger cube, the researchers could predict which of three actions the subject was going to perform: grasp the top cube, grasp the bottom cube, or reach to touch the side of the object without grasping.

These findings are important for another reason besides the obvious "mind-reading" applications. The technique of fMRI, which turns blood flow patterns in the brain into colourful maps of activity, is powerful not only because of the detailed, real-time information it provides, but because it is non-invasive. This means that instead of inserting electrodes into the brains of live monkeys and chimpanzees, we can ask a volunteer human subject to lay inside a noisy machine for an hour and get infinitely more useful results. And a clear conscience.

And THAT, my friends, is the type of science that makes me a proud Canadian.



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