Carnegie Mellon University has taken an important step in mapping thought patterns in the human brain, and the research has produced an amazing insight:
Human brains are similarly organized.
Based on how one person thinks about a hammer, a computer can identify when another person also is thinking about a hammer. It also can differentiate between items in the same category of tools, be it a hammer or screwdriver.
Based on the latest findings published in PLoS One -- the publication of the Public Library of Science -- Carnegie Mellon technology eventually could be advanced to produce a map of cognitive activity and better understand brain disorders, including autism.
"It's extremely exciting," said Marcel Just, a Carnegie Mellon neuroscientist who participated in the study. "We didn't know how ideas are represented in the brain. This is one of the first ways to look at that."
Previously, researchers were only able to discern differences in broad categories, such as tools vs. buildings.
For this study, Tom M. Mitchell, chairman of Carnegie Mellon's department of machine learning, and other scientists on the team developed the algorithm, or computer procedure used to analyze brain patterns, that was precise enough to tell accurately what tool the person was observing.
Using that general pattern, the computer then could identify when others were looking at and thinking about the same image.
The study makes two important scientific advances: "[T]here is an identifiable neural pattern associated with perception and contemplation of individual objects, and that part of the pattern is shared" by people.
The study reveals that patterns of thought extend into different regions of the brain, reflecting its complexity. It proves that a simple image can invoke thoughts in various regions of the brain, including how to use the object and experiences one has had with the object.
The study also helps to explain how the brain organizes thoughts, and the commonality of that process.
"I want a complete mapping of brain states and thoughts," Dr. Just said. "We're taking tiny baby steps, but anything we can think about is represented in the brain."
In coming years, researchers will be able to develop a fairly complex mapping of brain states and thoughts, he said.
"It's a little science fiction-y, and I don't think we'll do it in one year, but five to 10 is plausible," he said.
In the Carnegie Mellon study, a dozen participants enveloped in an MRI scanner were shown line drawings of 10 different objects -- five tools and five dwellings. One at a time, they were asked to think about the properties of the image shown.
Each subject's brain patterns were recorded, and the computer analysis based on the algorithm recorded a general pattern that was then used to determine when others were thinking about the same object.
"One of the most exciting things is that we always wondered whether your brain was organized the same way as my brain," Dr. Mitchell said. "There's something about humans that is similar. That's what's most remarkable."
David Templeton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578.