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Brain Scan Can Read People's Thoughts, Researchers Say

05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We may be one step closer to 'psychic' computers: Researchers have discovered a way to differentiate between memories people are thinking about by looking at their brain scans.

In a recent study, published in the March 11 online edition of Current Biology, British scientists from University College London found that they could identify human thought patterns in the brain by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

"The evidence suggests researchers can tell which memory of a past event a person is recalling from the pattern of their brain activity alone," the AFP explains.

AFP describes the study:

[Elanor] Maguire and her colleagues Martin Chadwick, Demis Hassabis, and Nikolaus Weiskopf showed 10 people each three very short films before brain scanning. Each movie featured a different actress and a fairly similar everyday scenario.

The researchers scanned the participants' brains while the participants were asked to recall each of the films. The researchers then ran the imaging data through a computer algorithm designed to identify patterns in the brain activity associated with memories for each of the films.

The algorithm mapped the subjects' brain patterns and, during a different scan, the subjects were asked to 'think about the clips again and the "psychic" computer worked out which one they had in mind,' the Daily Mail reports.

The computer was able to predict which video subjects were thinking of, with an accuracy rate of 45%, which, the study concludes, is far higher than if the predictions were made randomly.

In a previous study, the same team was able to map spatial memories in human beings by using brain scans to predict where a person was standing in a virtual reality room. These are memories that Maguire calls 'basic.' She said this most recent study is the first time that 'complex' episodic information has been accessed and decoded.

'These findings are a really valuable advance on traditional ways of analysing brain images. They look not just at the strength of the signal, but the actual pattern of activity across the brain,' Richard Morris, professor of neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, told the According to the BBC.

But, Morris stated, the computer algorithm used to decode memories is not actually 'reading' thoughts. '[I]t merely distinguishes one [memory] from another,' he said.

Nevertheless, this study has caught the attention of the Alzheimer's Society. Dr Susanne Sorensen, the Society's head of research told the BBC, '[T]he methods developed in this study may in the longer term help us investigate what goes wrong in brains that are developing the diseases which cause dementia.'

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