If Adam Wilson had had a sense of making history he might have chosen his words more carefully. “Go Badgers,” he wrote, in a message posted on the Twitter website last month.
The phrase, a rallying call for his university’s sports team, seemed entirely unremarkable – until the research scientist revealed in a second message just how he had sent it.
“Spelling with my brain,” he wrote 20 minutes later. Wilson had become the first person to post electronic messages just by thinking about them.
Wilson was not, of course, working unaided. Sitting snugly on his head in a lab at the University of Wisconsin was a device that looked a little like a bobble hat but was actually a miniaturised brain scanner. Inside each bobble a sophisticated package of miniaturised electronics was picking up the tiny electrical fields generated by the workings of his brain.
After a little practice Wilson had found he could use it to pick out letters from an alphabet on a screen, write an electronic message and send it. The process took just a few minutes. “If only I’d known I’d get this much attention I’d have said something more profound,” he said last week.
Wilson’s aim was indeed important, designed to create a system that would allow those with “locked-in” syndrome – people who can no longer speak because of strokes or other brain conditions – to start communicating again.
What he also did was to shine a light on some of the remarkable developments in brain science.
The power of his scanner to peer through the skull and detect the tiny electrical fields generated by currents in the cells beneath is just one of a multitude of breakthroughs.
Last month alone, other researchers announced they had used a different scanning technique to reconstruct simple images being shown to their subjects. In effect, their minds were being read.
In the past few months scientists have used the same technology to watch the formation of emotions ranging from love and lust to anger and disgust. They have also watched decisions being made, measured academic ability, spotted the mental signature of psychopathy and seen the hitherto invisible advance signs of devastating diseases such as Alzheimer’s. …