Mind Reading

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            Doctors are now using new developments in brain scanning and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI’s) to communicate with patients in a vegetative state. This new technology is giving doctors the ability to “read” brain damaged patient’s minds. Therefore they can determine if patients are in a conscious and recoverable state or not and allows them to treat their patients more effectively. New fMRI technologies represents a breakthrough for medicine as well as a possible new insight into the role of the mind and the brain, however there are ethical drawbacks.

The new fMRI’s allow doctors to now “detect when somebody is consciously aware, when existing clinical methods have been unable to provide that information[1].” This ability to detect consciousness is critical when diagnosing patients since it can be difficult to always accurately differentiate between the three general disorders of consciousness: coma, vegetative state, and minimally conscious state. These three states represent increasing levels of consciousness. While a coma is characterized as the absence of arousal or consciousness and no awareness of self and surroundings, a vegetative state is when a patient is awake but unaware of self or environment[2]. Patients in a vegetative state may improve to a minimally conscious state which could lead to recovery, or they may end up in a persistent vegetative state which is irreversible. A minimally conscious patient as opposed to a vegetative patient shows limited but clear awareness of self or their environment[3]. The new fMRI scans can help distinguish between these two kinds of patients.

Researchers have determined the difference in the fMRI patterns of willful thought and passive response to stimuli so they can communicate with patients who originally would have been considered brain-dead[4]. Originally, it used to take several months for doctors and researchers to interpret one scan. Even as late as 2006 it still took a few days to interpret what a patient was thinking. Now researchers can interpret and read a patients mind from a scan in a matter of seconds. In order to “read minds” researchers would use fMRI to measure patient’s neural responses during a presentation of spoken sentences.  The scans were then compared with responses to acoustically matched noise sequences[5]. An appropriate neural response could suggest a patient is consciously aware. A second study was then done in which the patient was asked to perform two mental imagery tasks during certain points of the scan[6]. They were asked to imagine playing tennis and walking through the rooms of their house. The scans of the mental images of the patient were then compared to those of healthy volunteers imagining the same thing and showed neural activity in the same areas. These results confirm that, despite being diagnosed to be in a vegetative state, the patient retained the ability to understand spoken commands and to respond to them through brain activity[7]. Clearly imagining particular tasks represents a meaningful act, which confirmed that the patient was consciously aware. This new ability to communicate with patients through mind reading will allow doctors to treat patients more effectively and have a more accurate view of a patient’s chance of survival. Patients can receive more intensive treatment with specific medications, surgeries and family visits that can lead to a speedier recovery. Not only is this advance significant medically, but also philosophically. Researchers have said that they are “talking” to and “reading” patient’s minds, not their brains. We are able to communicate with aware minds that are trapped inside unresponsive bodies. Could this mean that the mind is independent of the brain, the brain being the physical home and processing unit of the mind? Yet, damage to the brain does affect and hinder the complete capabilities of the mind. What are other possibilities of this new technology? Could this sort of mind reading be exploited in other fields, perhaps in lie detection and crime solving or even lead to privacy issues? In the future how much will scientists be able to read into scans? These questions have yet to be answered. The ethical issues have already begun to arise. Accuracy in reading the scans is still an issue, so a reading that leads to the removal of life support because a patient is diagnosed to be completely unconscious state will cause controversy. Performing studies on brain damaged patients is also an issue because they are not conscious enough to give their consent to participate in the study. Though there are concerns for patient’s rights, withholding research on ethical or legal grounds can also deny the same patients life saving treatments[8]. As the machinery develops and scientists become better at reading and interpreting the scans, perhaps issues on patients rights will die down, but other unexpected dilemmas with culture and religion will most likely surface.

At the moment the fMRI’s are too expensive and researchers are not sure how to best use the technology, so these ethical issues and possible dilemmas are problems for the future. For now we can only hope that the current research will continue to save patients and advance neuro-technology. Understanding the mind and the brain still requires far more research and advances, but with where we are now the future appears to hold the possibility for an amazing understanding of the most complicated organ in the human body, if society allows it.

 

[1] Karen Schrock, “Freeing a Locked-In Mind”, Scientific American Mind, April 2007, http://www.sciammind.com/article.cfm?articleID=C70861E4-E7F2-99DF-3F9AD7602EE86A49&pageNumber=1  5/18/07

[2] Steven Laureys,  Adrian Owen, and Nicholas Schiff, “Brain Function in Coma, Vegetative State, and Related Disorders.”  The Lancet, Neurology. Volume 3, Sept. 2004, pgs. 537-546. ftp://enigma.med.cornell.edu/pub/laowsc04.pdf    5/18/07

[3] Steven Laureys,  Adrian Owen, and Nicholas Schiff, “Brain Function in Coma, Vegetative State, and Related Disorders.”  The Lancet, Neurology. Volume 3, Sept. 2004, pgs. 537-546. ftp://enigma.med.cornell.edu/pub/laowsc04.pdf    5/18/07

[4] Karen Schrock, “Freeing a Locked-In Mind”, Scientific American Mind, April 2007, http://www.sciammind.com/article.cfm?articleID=C70861E4-E7F2-99DF-3F9AD7602EE86A49&pageNumber=1  5/18/07

[5] Adrian Owen et al., “Detecting Awareness in the Vegetative State”, Scientific Magazine, Sept. 8th 2006, Vol. 313 pg. 1402.  www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/313/5792/1402  5/18/07

[6] ibid

 

[7] Adrian Owen et al., “Detecting Awareness in the Vegetative State”, Scientific Magazine, Sept. 8th 2006, Vol. 313 pg. 1402.  www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/313/5792/1402  5/18/07

 

[8] Steven Laureys,  Adrian Owen, and Nicholas Schiff, “Brain Function in Coma, Vegetative State, and Related Disorders.”  The Lancet, Neurology. Volume 3, Sept. 2004, pgs. 537-546. ftp://enigma.med.cornell.edu/pub/laowsc04.pdf    5/18/07

 

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