Manipulating Images with the Mind

Is UCLA's Itzhak Fried, MD, PhD a modern-day Obi-Wan Kenobi?

Itzhak Fried, MD, PhD, professor of neurosurgery, UCLA, is a modern-day Obi-Wan Kenobi. “How so?” you ask? Because Fried’s research is allowing everyday people, not just Jedi knights, to use “the force” to manipulate complex visual images on computer screens using only their minds.

The new research, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, found that participants whose brains were connected to a computer that displayed two merged images were able to force that computer to display just one image, while discarding the other, using signals that were transmitted from each person’s brain to the computer from merely a handful of brain cells.

“The subjects were able to use their thoughts to override the images they saw on the computer screen,” said Fried, the study’s lead author.

The study further advances the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), which hold promise for aiding people who are paralyzed in communicating or controlling prosthetic limbs. The current study uses BCI technology mostly for understanding how information is processes in the brain, particularly how the collective activity of single brain cells shape thoughts and decisions.

“This is a novel and elegant use of a brain-computer interface to explore how the brain directs attention and makes choices,” said Debra Babcock, MD, PhD, program director, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

For the study, the medial temporal lobes in the brains of 12 individuals with epilepsy were implanted with fine wires to record seizure activity. While recordings were transmitted to a computer, subjects view two superimposed picture of familiar objects, places, animals, or people on a computer screen. Each of the 12 participants was asked to choose one image and focus their thoughts on it until the other image faded away and the chosen image was fully visible, with the computer monitor updated every one-tenth of a second based on the brain recordings.

Out of 900 total attempts, the group of patients as a whole was able to force the monitor to display a chosen image in 70% of cases, with participants tending to learn the task quickly and often seeing successful results on the first attempt.

The activity of just four cells in the temporal lobe was used to obtain the brain recordings that manipulated the computer images. With previous studies showing that individual cells in the temporal lobe respond preferentially to specific images, Dr. Fried’s team identified four cells with preferences for celebrities or familiar objects and then targeted them with the recording electrodes. The researchers found that when study participants tried to make the chosen image fully appear and the other fade away, the success of doing so seemed to depend on the person’s ability to “power up” cells that preferred the target image and suppress cells that preferred the other image.

“The remarkable aspects of this study are that we can concentrate our attention to make a choice by modulating so few brain cells and that we can learn to control those cells very quickly,” said Babcock.

Is Fried’s research team on the way to creating a team of Jedi knights out of patients who are paralyzed or have lost a limb and can use “the force” to control things with their minds? What steps can be taken to bring this research to the next level, so that people could do more than simply manipulate images? How could your patients benefit from such technology?