In their paper published in Nature today, HWNI faculty members Tom Griffiths, Frederic Theunissen, Jack Gallant and co-authors describe a data-driven approach to map language representation across the human cortex. They were able to determine what regions of the cortex are active during language processing, and to identify smaller regions that specifically respond to a set of related words, such as words representing numeric concepts, or emotional concepts.
The implications of this study were nicely described by the Berkeley News press release:
Detailed maps showing how the brain organizes different words by their meanings could eventually help give voice to those who cannot speak, such as victims of stroke or brain damage, or motor neuron diseases such as ALS. While mind-reading technology remains far off on the horizon, charting how language is organized in the brain brings decoding inner dialogue a step closer to reality, the researchers said.
“This discovery paves the way for brain-machine interfaces that can interpret the meaning of what people want to express,” [lead author Alex] Huth said. “Imagine a brain-machine interface that doesn’t just figure out what sounds you want to make, but what you want to say.”
For example, clinicians could track the brain activity of patients who have difficulty communicating and then match that data to semantic language maps to determine what their patients are trying to express. Another potential application is a decoder that translates what you say into another language as you speak.
>> Read the research article in Nature. “Natural speech reveals the semantic maps that tile human cerebral cortex,” Alexander G. Huth, Wendy A. de Heer, Thomas L. Griffiths, Frédéric E. Theunissen, and Jack L. Gallant.
*Image is figure 2 from Nature 2016 Apr 28;532(7600):453-8. doi: 10.1038/nature17637.
Selected media coverage
Words On The Brain: A Semantic Map of the Cortex
Discover Magazine | Neuroskeptic
The Human Brain as a Word Cloud, on a Shared Drive
Wall Street Journal | Robert Lee Hotz
This Is Your Brain on Podcasts
New York Times | Benedict Carey
How the ‘Moth Radio Hour’ helped scientists map out meaning in the brain
Los Angeles Times | Amina Khan
New brain research offers hope for those who have lost speech
SF Gate | David Perlman