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J Neurosci. 2013 May 29;33(22):9385-93. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5577-12.2013.

The brain's silent messenger: using selective attention to decode human thought for brain-based communication.

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The Brain and Mind Institute, Department of Psychology, Western University, London, Ontario N6A 5B7, Canada.


The interpretation of human thought from brain activity, without recourse to speech or action, is one of the most provoking and challenging frontiers of modern neuroscience. In particular, patients who are fully conscious and awake, yet, due to brain damage, are unable to show any behavioral responsivity, expose the limits of the neuromuscular system and the necessity for alternate forms of communication. Although it is well established that selective attention can significantly enhance the neural representation of attended sounds, it remains, thus far, untested as a response modality for brain-based communication. We asked whether its effect could be reliably used to decode answers to binary (yes/no) questions. Fifteen healthy volunteers answered questions (e.g., "Do you have brothers or sisters?") in the fMRI scanner, by selectively attending to the appropriate word ("yes" or "no"). Ninety percent of the answers were decoded correctly based on activity changes within the attention network. The majority of volunteers conveyed their answers with less than 3 min of scanning, suggesting that this technique is suited for communication in a reasonable amount of time. Formal comparison with the current best-established fMRI technique for binary communication revealed improved individual success rates and scanning times required to detect responses. This novel fMRI technique is intuitive, easy to use in untrained participants, and reliably robust within brief scanning times. Possible applications include communication with behaviorally nonresponsive patients.

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