Last month’s poll: Can MRI or CT scan read my mind?

At Baycrest, we are focused on using imaging techniques to predict whether or not someone’s cognitive (thinking) abilities are currently normal and what is going to happen to these abilities in the future.

Science fiction or reality? It may be the stuff that a good science fiction movie or futuristic book is made of, but should we be concerned next time we have an MRI or go through a security scan at the airport that the technician can “see” what we are thinking?

The simple answer for now is no. To some extent certain specialized imaging equipment can “read” minds, but not in the way people are really interested in or concerned about, says Baycrest senior scientist, Stephen Strother.

Research in this area is in the initial stages, and there is a long way to go. “We are at about the stage where speech recognition technology was 20 to 25 years ago. That’s how long it took to get to the point where speech recognition on cell phones, for example, became useful,” explains Dr. Strother.

According to Dr. Strother, “At Baycrest, we are more focused on using imaging techniques to predict whether or not someone’s cognitive (thinking) abilities are currently normal and what is going to happen to these abilities in the future, rather than general thought-reading. In a way, this is mind reading.”

Other research in this area, taking place at the University of California, Berkeley, is trying to decipher unique patterns of brain activity while a person is speaking. They are hoping that by gaining a better understanding of these brain patterns, they may be able to one day help people who are no longer capable of speaking, due to disorders such as stroke or Lou Gehrig’s disease. By understanding the blood flow and electrical activity in the brain they may be able to “read” what a person intends to say.

“Currently at the Rotman Research Institute we are at the point where we are studying what happens in the brain when we show research participants a series of images such as a cat, a house, etc. while they are undergoing brain imaging. We try to identify which picture they are looking at based on the blood flow and electrical activity in the brain. We may be able to identify that they are looking at a cat, but we can’t tell if they think the cat is cute. It is very basic. We cannot read their thoughts. That’s a huge leap from where we are today.”

Our hope is to one day better predict and treat brain conditions

According to Dr. Strother, the ability to read which parts of the brain are active during the thinking process could potentially allow scientists to better predict and treat brain conditions. “I think there are real, positive possibilities. It might help us better predict the likelihood of someone aging normally versus developing dementia or Alzheimer’s; it could help with targeting treatments for specific types of dementia; also it could potentially help speed up the rate in which we discover potential treatments.”

A lot more data and a significant amount of technical innovation is needed to actually move from the lab into a more real-world setting with practical application, says Dr. Strother. The hope is to eventually develop portable imaging equipment similar to a 24-hour blood pressure monitor. This would enable scientists and physicians to establish normal baseline measurements and monitor a person’s brain over a day.

“Imagine wearing a device like this for 24 hours to monitor brain health during daily activities and having the ability to compare the same person’s brain function a year later? We might be able to answer questions about changes in memory, cognition or mental health. We may be able to tell whether or not you have some early signs of a memory disorder and what the likelihood is that it will get worse in a year’s time,” notes Dr. Strother.

Although this is still many years away, there are advances happening in this area which may improve the lives of aging adults in generations to come.

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