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Illustration depicting camera obscura. (Photos.com/Getty Images)
Illustration depicting camera obscura. (Photos.com/Getty Images)

Will humans someday communicate by thought alone? Add to ...

It was one of the great “eureka” moments in the history of neuroscience, caught on film as it was taking place in London, Ont.

The patient, Scott Routley, was severely brain-injured in 1999 after being hit by a police car. Given only two years to live at that time, he had already far exceeded medical augury, but the doctors who had examined him for more than a dozen years could find no signs of awareness in him.

He was unable to communicate with the outside world, seemingly in a vegetative state. But was the 39-year-old secretly aware? Was a working mind trapped in his immobilized body?

So Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute, put Mr. Routley in a real-time, functional-magnetic-resonance-imaging (fMRI) scanner. The doctor asked the patient to choose one of two kinds of mental imagery to answer the question of whether he was in pain. In effect, the fMRI said Mr. Routley had answered “no.”

The moment was a double first: the first time in the world any patient of this sort had been able to tell doctors anything medically relevant, and the first time such a patient had been able to communicate instantaneously.

News quickly spread around the world of Dr. Owen’s achievement – the ultimate to date in hacking the human brain. Much more than just finding out how different parts of the brain work, his project reaches inside the hidden folds of the grey matter to figure out what a person wants to say, in the brave hope that lost souls can be found.

His work is part of an accelerating trend among scientists to figure out how to link the human brain – both healthy and injured – directly to machines, no muscles required.

Remarkably, the precise moment of the breakthrough happened to be filmed by BBC television journalists, who had spent two years making a documentary on severely brain-injured patients.

The camera caught the play of emotion on Dr. Owen’s face as he realized that Mr. Routley had answered, giving a glimpse of what was going on in the doctor’s brain as well as the patient’s.

“It was scary,” says Dr. Owen, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging. But the answer he got was the Holy Grail he had been seeking for 15 years, in research in Canada and Britain. “I was absolutely elated. I was very, very excited that he had managed to tell us something that we couldn’t possibly know in any other way.”

This kind of brain-computer interface represents a massive philosophical shift for humans, who evolved and survived as a species through brute force married to cunning. Even our highly wired world still requires us to type or tap or talk to get a computer to work. What if, in the future, chips and neurons were more intimately connected?

Ken Colwell, a PhD candidate in electrical and computer engineering at Duke University in North Carolina, said people in his field of brain-computer interface dream about a day when people can think words and they show up on a screen.

Already, scientists are playing with the idea and have prototypes for simple tasks. Chinese researchers can help someone fly a toy-sized drone sitting in a wheelchair. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH96O5niEnI&feature=youtu.be A handful of headsets and helmets are commercially available now that can read your brainwaves in order to run phones and computers, play computing games and shift the gears on a bike via smartphone.

And the U.S. military’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has shown that army sentinels can double their ability to spot potential security risks by wearing a brain-reading cap linked to a video camera and computer that identify unconscious human detection of changes in the surroundings. http://www.darpa.mil/NewsEvents/Releases/2012/09/18.aspx

Electrical engineers at Duke, including Mr. Colwell, are working on something far more subtle and complex. They are trying to improve the speed and efficiency of a virtual keyboard on which patients who are paralyzed or otherwise incapacitated can type using only their brains.

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