Movies: Based on a True Brain Scan

It's often said that truth can be stranger than fiction, but it may also be said that truth imitates fiction. Technological advances seem to be sweeping us closer and closer to a reality that toes the line between fiction and fact. For example, the ability to reconstruct a movie based on brain scans sounds like the stuff of, well, movies — but UC Berkeley scientists recently reported success in doing just that. This breakthrough could advance the development of an advanced brain-machine interface that would allow people with cerebral palsy or paralysis to guide computers with their minds.

The scientists used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and computational models to decode and reconstruct Hollywood movie trailers from people's memories. They built a computational model that enabled them to decode brain signals generated by moving pictures. As subjects watched two separate sets of Hollywood movie trailers, fMRI was used to measure blood flow through the visual cortex. On the computer, the brain was divided into small, 3D cubes known as volumetric pixels, or "voxels." The brain activity was recorded while subjects viewed the first set of clips, and the computer program learned, second by second, to associate visual patterns in the movie with the corresponding brain activity.

Though this technology is probably decades away from being sci-fi-worthy, the possibilities are still exciting to contemplate. It could, for instance, help provide a better window into what goes on in the minds of people who cannot communicate verbally, such as stroke victims, coma patients, and people with neurodegenerative diseases.

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