- Published: November 14, 2012
A major, science-fiction type concern for neuroscience is that it will eventually provide the technology for mind reading. The idea is that one day neuroscientific technology will open the door to a world of human rights abuses that stem from the ability of a government to control their citizen's thoughts. While this sort of scenario is recognized as impossible by most neuroscientists, a different, and much simpler, sort of mind reading may be possible. This sort of mind reading relies on the help of the person whose mind is being read, and although it sounds like science fiction it has already found use today when dealing with vegetative state patients.
This technique relies on fMRI imaging to observe specific brain-states in a patient with whom scientists are trying to communicate. The patient is asked questions, and is asked to think of a specific task when he wishes to answer in the affirmative. For example, one successful technique involves asking the patient to imagine himself playing tennis when he wants to answer "yes" to a question. This process relies on the high level of activation in the pre-motor cortex caused by this sort of thought process, which can be easily discerned on an fMRI. In one recent study, scientists were able to very clearly see activation in the pre-motor cortex when healthy patients were asked to imagine playing tennis. Scientists then posed the same question to vegetative state patients, and 4 out of 23 patients responded in the same way. In another demonstration, scientists were able to discern that another vegetative state patient, Scott Routley, was not in any pain, by posing questions in the manner described above.
Because there are differences between vegetative state patients, due to varying levels and locations of brain damage, this techniques will not be successful in all cases. However, the potential to communicate with these non-responsive persons may help provide solutions to questions their families face everyday, such as when to "pull the plug." If such a patient was able to communicate directly with doctors and tell them whether he wishes to stay living, even with, in some cases, no hope of recovery, it would make the decisions of his family members much easier. There are inherent ethical problems posed by this technique, though, especially as it is difficult to prove, even though this technique is technically sound, that the patient is actually communicating, since they cannot communicate outside of fMRI. Is this technique able to meet our standards of communiation, and is it sufficient for us to know the patient's will? Hopefully some of these questions will find answers in the future.