No, not really, but this is still a cool result: investigators have used an MRI to read images off the visual cortex. They presented subjects with some simple symbols and letters, scanned their brains, and read off the image from the data — and it was even legible! Here are some examples of, first, the images presented to the subjects, then a set of individual patterns from the cortex read in single measurements, and then, finally, the average of the single scans. I think you can all read the word “neuron” in there.
Before you get all panicky and worry that now the CIA will be able to extract all of those sexy librarian fantasies out of your brain by aiming a gadet at your head, relax. This is an interesting piece of work, but it has some serious limitations.
This only works because they are scanning the part of the visual cortex that exhibits retinotopy — a direct mapping of the spatial arrangement of the retina (and thus, of any images falling on it) onto a patch of the brain at the back of your head. This won’t work for just about any other modality, except probably touch, and I doubt it will work for visualization/cognition/memory, which are all much more derived and much more complexly stored. Although I’d really like to know if someone closes their eyes and merely imagines a letter “E”, for instance, whether there isn’t some activation of the visual cortex.
The process was time consuming. Subjects were first recorded while staring at random noise for 6 seconds in 22 trials. This was necessary to get an image of the background noise of the brain, wwhich was subtracted from subsequent image measurements. The brain is a noisy place, and the letter pattern is superimposed on a lot of background variation. Then, finally, the subject has to fixate on the test image for 12 seconds.
Lastly, a fair amount of math has to be flung at the scan to extract the contrast information. This is probably the least of the obstacles, since computational power seems to increase fairly rapidly.
Give this research some more time, though, and I can imagine some uses for being able to record specific aspects of brain states. I’d be more interested in a device that can read pre-motor cortex though — I’d like to get rid of this clumsy keyboard someday.
Miyawaki Y, Uchida H, Yamashita O, Sato M-a, Morito Y, Tanabe HC, Sadato N, Kamitani Y (2008) Visual Image Reconstruction from Human Brain Activity using a Combination of Multiscale Local Image Decoder. Neuron 60(5):915-929.