June 15, 2012

Rheanna Sand


fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, is a popular topic here at Science in Seconds. We've talked about how it can be used to read your memories, read your mind, and even read your dog's mind!

But all this techno-telepathy has seemed a bit, well, creepy. That is, until Adrian Owen got a hold of it. In the mid 90's while the rest of us were chatting on ICQ and burning our first CDs, Owen was looking for a real clinical application of fMRI. Brain mapping could only go so far, after all.

So Owen and his colleagues decided to look at the blood flow patterns in the brains of patients locked into a vegetative state. Their first patient, 26-year-old Kate Bainbridge, showed intense activity in an area known for facial recognition when shown pictures of people known to her. As a result, she was chosen for further treatment and rehabilitation, and now says of the scan, "It was like magic, it found me."


This is your brain on facial recognition.


After that breakthrough, Owen moved on to use speech recognition to look for consciousness, or at least, some sign of it. But perception of speech is not necessarily consciousness - so he instead tried a brilliant experiment. He asked healthy individuals to imagine themselves playing tennis, or walking through their own house. Both of these thoughts led to specific fMRI patterns of activity, but in different parts of the brain. The patterns were the same from person to person. So, why not use these thoughts as a yes/no indicator?

Just like the "blink once for yes, twice for no" concept, Owens' researchers asked a locked in patient a yes or no question, and told them to imagine playing tennis for yes, or walking through their house for no. The researchers asked questions they didn't know the answer to prior to the study, and amazingly, the patient answered 5 of the 6 correctly, with the 6th producing no measurable signal.

With these phenomenal results, Owen has been awarded a huge, $20 million Canada Research Chair at the University of Western Ontario to turn his work into an accessible, EEG-based machine that will enable thousands of patients to finally communicate with their doctors, families, and friends. The ethical questions that follow will be complex, but it's a bridge most definitely worth crossing.


You can listen to this incredible story on this week's Nature podcast:



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