Monday, October 3, 2011

Reconstruction from brain activity



How to make movies of what the brain sees

Remember the movie Brainstorm? Imagine watching someone’s dream, or tapping directly into the mind of a coma patient. University of California, Berkeley scientists claim they have finally achieved this classic futuristic movie “mind reading” trope. Sorta.

They’re using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and computational models to decode and reconstruct people’s dynamic visual experiences.

So far, the technology can only reconstruct movie clips you’ve already viewed. But they claim that the breakthrough paves the way for reproducing the movies inside our heads that no one else sees, such as dreams and memories. “This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery,” said Professor Jack Gallant, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist and coauthor of the study. “We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.”

OK, now I’m getting kinda creeped out over here.

Communicating with comatose patients

But wait, here’s the plus side: eventually, the researchers say, the technology could allow us to see into the minds of people who cannot communicate verbally, such as stroke victims, coma patients, and people with neurodegenerative diseases. It may also lay the groundwork for a brain-machine interface, so people with cerebral palsy or paralysis, for example, can guide computers with their minds.

However, researchers quickly assure us that the technology is decades away from allowing mad scientists to read your thoughts and intentions.

They say.

How it works

Gallant and fellow researchers previously recorded brain activity in the visual cortex while a subject viewed black-and-white photographs. They then built a computational model that enabled them to accurately predict which picture the subject was looking at.

In their latest experiment, they’ve solved the hard problem: actually decoding brain signals generated by moving pictures, the researchers report.

“Our natural visual experience is like watching a movie,” said Shinji Nishimoto, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher in Gallant’s lab. “In order for this technology to have wide applicability, we must understand how the brain processes these dynamic visual experiences.”

Nishimoto and two other research team members served as subjects for the experiment, because the procedure requires volunteers to remain still, inside the MRI scanner, for hours at a time.

They watched two separate sets of Hollywood movie trailers, while fMRI was used to measure blood flow through the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information.

On the computer, the brain was divided into small, three-dimensional cubes known as volumetric pixels, or voxels. “We built a model for each voxel that describes how shape and motion information in the movie is mapped into brain activity,” Nishimoto said.

Reconstructing brain movies

The brain activity, recorded while subjects viewed the first set of clips, was fed into a computer program that learned, second by second, to associate visual patterns in the movie with the corresponding brain activity. Brain activity evoked by the second set of clips was used to test the movie reconstruction algorithm.

This was done by feeding 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos into the computer program so that it could predict the brain activity that each film clip would most likely evoke in each subject.

Wait, five hours having to watch videos of dogs drinking cola, sneezing pandas, and kids biting fingers? These guys are freaking heroes!

Finally, the 100 clips that the computer program decided were most similar to the clip that the subject had probably seen were merged to produce a blurry yet continuous reconstruction of the original movie.

Reconstructing movies using brain scans has been challenging because the blood flow signals measured using fMRI change much more slowly than the neural signals that encode dynamic information in movies, the researchers said. (Apparently. that’s why most previous attempts to decode brain activity have been limited static images.)

“We addressed this problem by developing a two-stage model that separately describes the underlying neural population and blood flow signals,” Nishimoto said.

Ultimately, Nishimoto said, “We need to know how the brain works in naturalistic conditions. For that, we need to first understand how the brain works while we are watching movies.”

Uh, maybe they should switch to Netflix this time. Hmm … can you eat popcorn in an MRI machine?