Salon’s Mind Reader

Salon have just announced the start of a regular series of neuroscience articles with the first tackling whether brain scans might enable us to communicate with people who are conscious but trapped in their paralysed bodies.

The article considers a recent scientific paper [pdf] on the use of brain imaging to detect awareness in people who might otherwise be thought to be in a coma-like state, but actually are largely unable to communicate with the outside world because they’re paralysed.

We’ve covered two studies during the last few years that have reported consciousness in what were thought to be unconscious patients owing to the fact that their brain activity seemed to reflect complex mental processes or could be altered at will, following verbal requests from the researchers.

There are two main implications of this work, the first is that we could better diagnose patients as being paralysed rather than in comas, and the second is the hope that we could design systems to read the brain activity in a reliable enough way to allow affected people to communicate with the ‘outside world’.

With all of the brain scan hype we get subjected to, the article considers an important but rarely discussed point – although revolutionary, fMRI isn’t a very accurate measure of brain activity and we can’t directly infer subjective mental states from brain scan data.

This means its utility as a tool for detecting consciousness, let alone ‘mind reading’, is severely limited.

Interestingly, the article is written by a neurologist called Robert Burton, who shares a name with the author of the 17th century book The Anatomy of Melancholy which remains one of the best books ever written on the troubled mind.

It seems this article is the first in a new series called Mind Reader – “a new Salon feature exploring the galaxy of the brain.”

Link to Salon article ‘The light’s on, but is anybody home?’.
pdf of review article on fMRI detectection of awareness in coma-like states.

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