Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Big News (40 Tons)

A new 40 ton functional MRI machine has been unveiled at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Unlike previous fMRI machines that provide a picture of blood-flow to various brain regions, this fMRI can apparantly provide a picture of individual neurons firing. Other fMRI images also have a huge time-lag problem, not so this one. I'm excited about this technology, to be sure. It also appears not to require the injection of radioactive material, such as in a SPECT scan. Read the piece from the Chicago Tribune via PsycPORT. At the end of the article there is a short discussion about the ethical concerns, especially if the technology is misused. The thing to remeber is that, even if we can see individual neurons firing, we can't read the mind directly. For example, I show you a picture of a cow. Your occipital lobe would light up as the brain processes the image. Some part of the cortex would "recognize" the cow - but there are a number of ways that the cow can be recognized. If you are a farmer, you may recognize by breed or other characteristics that are different if you happen to be a meat processor (you would notice other things about the picture). There is a "spreading activation" from the picture of the cow that would be different for each person. For example, I noticed that my daughter was watching the movie "the Barnyard" the other day. If you showed me a picture of a cow right now, I would remember that and start thinking about my daughter and my mother-in-law (in whose house she was watching it) and what day it was, etc. If you were watching my brain, and I didn't tell you about this, you would be confused. By the way, spreading activation is uncontrolable and I might not even be able to tell you what "thoughts" (nodes) are activated when you show me a picture. I don't think that anyone will ever be able to "read you mind" with such a technology, unless you spent a huge amount of time in the machine having it "learn" your particular brain.


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