Scientists Decode Words from Thoughts

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At the University of Utah, researchers took a step closer to being able to translate your thoughts. Creepy as that may sound initially, the idea is actually to help paralyzed people communicate their needs more easily by creating an implantable a device that translates brain signals into spoken words.

According to a press release from the university, the researchers used an implant of 16 micro-electrodes arranged in a grid. The release notes that the micro-electrodes sit under the skull but float on top of the brain “without poking into it,” so they are safe to use over the parts of the brain responsible for speech. The study was performed on epilepsy patients who already had their craniums temporarily detached for surgery.

During the study, the micro-electrodes were placed over the areas of the brain that control the mouth and facial movements necessary for speech, as well as another part of the brain called Wernicke’s area, which helps you understand speech. The researchers then asked the patients to read through a list of 10 simple words like “yes,”  “no,” “hot” and “cold.” While the patients read the words, the electrodes monitored their brain activity. Afterward, the researchers tried to guess which word corresponded to which brainwave patterns. They had the best success rate when it came to choosing between pairs of words, when they were able to choose the right word based on the brain wave patterns 85% of the time.  They were able to choose the right word from the entire list of ten 48% of the time by using only the signals from the most accurate electrodes.

Bradley Geger, an assistant professor who worked on the project, acknowledged in the press release that there is still a long way to go:

“This is proof of concept. We’ve proven these signals can tell you what the person is saying well above chance. But we need to be able to do more words with more accuracy before it is something a patient really might find useful.”