2006 IN REVIEW: Minds over matter
BY LOUIS BERGERON
The term "mind control" has an ominous, Orwellian ring to it. But when it's the owner of the mind at the controls, the benefits can be tremendous, as two groups of researchers showed this past year.
Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, assistant professor of anesthesia, used the power of a new technology called real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging, or rtfMRI, to help patients learn to reduce their own pain.
Subjects were placed inside an MRI scanner where they were able to watch their brain activity. They were then shown "live action" images of an area of the brain responsible for processing pain, and given various mental strategies to try to alter their brain activity.
"As an example, we asked them to think about changing the meaning of the pain," Mackey said. "Instead of thinking of it as a terrible experience, to think of it as something relatively pleasant. Over time, subjects showed an increased ability to change their brain and by doing so to modulate their pain."
Mackey said more studies still have to be done to see if the method holds up.
Another brainy advance came from Krishna Shenoy, PhD, assistant professor of electrical engineering and of neuroscience. His work brought a long-standing science fiction concept—the idea of a disembodied brain linked to a computer apparatus by which it controls the world—one step closer to reality.
Actually, Shenoy has a more humanitarian aim: helping paralyzed people interact with the world around them. He and his team of researchers worked with a prosthesis called a brain-computer interface—consisting of electrodes attached to a subject's head—to record brain waves. The device then sends the signals to a computer, which translates them into commands to control the prosthesis.
A big barrier to making such prostheses practical has been the slowness of translating signals into action. Shenoy's team developed a new algorithm that quadrupled the processing speed and published the results this year. Shenoy said that his team's work—done with rhesus macaque monkeys—coupled with advances from other researchers working with human subjects, shows it will be possible to devise a truly functional prosthesis for the paralyzed.