Welt der Wunder

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Our ingenious mind: what thoughts are really capable of

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Our ingenious mind: what thoughts are really capable of

Neuroscientists can peer into our brains and read what we are thinking. There are also less chilling possibilities, such as prosthetics that can be controlled by the power of thought.

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As the popular saying goes: “Our thoughts are our own”. But for how much longer? Researchers around the world are working hard to unlock the secrets of the human brain. They are transplanting nerves, implanting pacemakers in the brain, and connecting our brains to computers.

In the future, there will be many more ways to modify the way we think. But what are the limits of brain surgery? Will adultery and infidelity soon be a thing of the past? Will we soon be able to control machines with our thoughts? One thing is certain: the possibilities for medicine on the horizon are astounding.

How brain vision works

Professor John Dylan Haynes from the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin is one of the world’s leading minds in brain research. For years, he has been working on decoding thoughts by observing the processes in the brain. Haynes knows exactly what a person is thinking before they know it themselves. He refers to this as “brain vision”.

Haynes is able to determine how the nerves in the brain react to certain thoughts. To accomplish this, he measures the brains of test subjects with a magnetic resonance tomograph – in three dimensions. This is because each thought activates different areas of the brain. For example, if the subject sees a car, the color is recognized in one area of the brain, the shape in another. Finally, the brain compares the result with our previous experiences.

In Haynes’ experiment, the subjects are not told why they are being asked to look at pictures of cars. Nevertheless, Haynes and his colleagues can tell which cars the subjects find beautiful and which they find ugly before the subjects do.

Keeping in contact with the outside world

Brain researcher Niels Birbaumer and his colleagues at the Institute of Medical Psychology have been working for more than five years to enable severely paralyzed people to communicate again using a brain-computer interface. The advantage of this method is that no muscle movement is required, as is the case with spoken language or keyboard operation.

Kirsten R. suffers from a degenerative disease of the motor nervous system called ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). She can hardly move or speak. Eventually, she will be completely immobile. This is because the progress of the disease destroys the nerve cells that control movement. The disease is usually fatal after several years.

To enable Kirsten to communicate with her environment, she wears a swim cap with sensors. The sensors measure her brain activity and transmit the data to special software.

If we act as the brains, computers can be our hands

Our hands are more than mere tools. We use them to eat and drink, we use them to touch, we use them to express our feelings. But what happens when we lose them in an accident? Researchers hope that the connection between the human brain and computers will make life much easier for paralyzed individuals in the future.

High-tech prosthetics from Austria

Researchers in Austria have succeeded in developing artificial arms that can be controlled solely by the power of the mind. Patients just have to imagine the movement, and their prosthesis executes it. So far, this high-tech solution has made life easier for seven people around the world. One of them is 20-year-old Christian Kandlbauer from Styria, Austria.

In 2005, doctors at the University Hospital in Vienna fought for Christian’s life. When he climbed a power pole, 20,000 volts surged through his body. Both of his arms had to be amputated due to severe injuries. An artificial neural network will now ensure that Christian Kandlbauer’s arms move at the same moment that he moves them mentally. With his new prosthesis, he can perform up to seven movements simultaneously. Conventional prostheses only allow for up to three movements.

Controlling video games with our thoughts

Brain-computer interfaces also have the potential to revolutionize video games. The San Francisco-based company Emotiv Systems presented a new development for game makers: the “Emotiv Development Kit” – a headset combined with sensors, including sensors for measuring brain activity. This makes it possible for virtual game characters to react to the player’s facial expressions and mood. Gamers can thus influence the course of events in a computer game solely through the power of their thoughts.

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