Saturday, February 06, 2010
Experiments with primates and humans have demonstrated the possibility of reading a creature's thoughts and using that to control robotic devices. (See video below.)
In both Avatar and Caprica the idea is used that thinking about moving can be used to guide an avatar.
In The Diving Bell & The Butterfly -- a film based on a real experience -- a person almost totally paralyzed is able to communicate by using the tiny control he has over one muscle to signal the full life going on within his head. It is like sending a stream of information through a slow, low bandwidth connection: the process is slow, but the quality of information is unrestricted.
A new study takes this idea one step further. Patients who were totally paralyzed (and clinically believed to be vegetative, since they had minimal or no response to stimuli) were able to visualize scenes in their brain that were measurable through a functional MRI.
In fact, it was possible to ask a question with a yes or no answer and have the patient answer by thinking of one scene or the other, with the observation from the fMRI able to distinguish the yes scene from the no scene.
Since a binary code (yes/no) can be used to express any message, in principle a patient who is able to think can communicate fluently without moving at all.
For the person conducting the study to communicate with the patient, it is obviously necessary for the patient to hear (or have some other sense that allows input). This study showed that in some patients who are totally immobile there is still an active life going on in the brain and an ability to hear. It is possible that in some cases where the patient does not hear but still has a life going on in their brain, that there could be some other method of communicating with them.
This was a very limited study, but certainly suggests the value of confirming this study and developing more powerful techniques for communication.
In any case, the fact that some percentage of totally immobile (and apparently vegetative) patients may in fact be alive and aware and capable mentally provides strong motivation for developing ways to communicate with them, and provides a strong motivation and reason for their friends and relatives to visit regularly and talk with them.
New England Journal Of Medicine: Feb 3, 2010