Scientists don't get their due. After all, they can do almost anything. Except, you know, eavesdrop on our conversations by reading our brainwaves. Oh... wait. Apparently, now, they can.
New research published in PLoS Biology covers the efforts of Robert Knight at Berkeley and Edward Chang at UCSF, who have been looking into decoding the electrical activity in the human auditory system — or in other words, how your ears turn audio signals into something your brain can decipher. The eventual goal is to explore and understand how the brain ecodes speech and work out which elements of speech are actually most important in comprehension. Knight and Chang's research looked at an area of the system called the superior temporal gyrus.
By analysing the pattern of signals passing through the gyrus — which was evaluated via electrodes attached to 15 patients already undergoing neurosurgical procedures for epilepsy or brain tumour, because you can't just go about cutting up people's heads for the fun of it — they were able to record the electrical impulses and then run them through a couple of computational models to try to estimate the original sound heard. While the strike rate wasn't 100 per cent, it did yield results that were better than might be estimated by chance, indicating that the research is on the right track.
The implications of this kind of work are stunning; not only could it make it possible to work out the brain processes of those with serious brain injuries, but it could also be used to allow those who've lost the ability to speak to talk again; if you could think the word and have it read or printed out for you by a machine, for example.
Obviously there's also the concern that it could be used to record private conversations, but at this stage, with the need to attach electrodes to sensitive bits of your inner skull, I'd say you're pretty safe for now. If you're feeling particularly concerned, a small hat fashioned out of some kind of reflective metallic material commonly used for cooking should protect you. [PLoS Biology] Image: PLoS Biology