Thanks for the memories -- the computer you'll never forget
Published 12/03/2010 | 05:00
RESEARCHERS have taken a leap into the world of science fiction by creating a computer programme that uncovers memories.
Scientists used the "mind-reading" software to tell which of three film scenes their volunteers were thinking about simply by analysing their brain activity. The research illuminates mechanisms of memory, which are still not clearly understood.
It could also lead to better ways of helping people who suffer memory loss as a result of injury or old age.
The study was carried out at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, where the same team last year showed how "spatial" memories relating to a person's location could be "read".
The new work goes a big step further by tapping into "episodic" memories -- the complex recollections of everyday events that include actions and feelings. Ten participants were first asked to watch three seven-second movie clips and memorise what they saw.
The film extracts were simple and depicted ordinary scenes in a typical urban street, including a woman drinking coffee from a paper cup and another posting a letter.
Volunteers then recalled each clip in turn while having their brains scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The scanner uses a magnetic field and radio waves to identify regions of heightened brain activity.
An intelligent computer programme was "trained" to recognise distinctive patterns in the scan images that related to specific films.
Eventually, the software was accurately able to pick out which movie clip an individual volunteer had been thinking about by analysing the scans.
This was even possible when the computer was fed brain data that was not originally used to train the programme. These scan records contained the same patterns as those the software had learned to recognise.