Scientists are getting closer to something mothers have been doing for years: knowing what we’re thinking. The development of neuroimaging technology—various techniques used to directly and indirectly image the brain—has shifted our understanding of how the brain works. Recently, two studies utilized technology to visualize brain activity associated with the brain’s perception of the external and social worlds.
For many years, the brain was a mystery. It could only be studied through invasive procedures, and usually, only when a patient was dead. Now, using neuroimaging technology to observe brain activity, scientists can see how multiple parts of the brain work together to process and store sensory information.
A team of cognitive neuroscientists at Cornell University is making use of functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) to understand the physical mechanisms that allow humans to interpret their social sphere. This technology has allowed scientists to see who a person is thinking of for the first time in history.
Participants in the Cornell study were given the personality traits of four individuals, and then asked to imagine how each would behave in a set of scenarios. The researchers were able to predict who the participants were thinking of based on activity patterns in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain stores and analyzes personality traits.
The brain combines personality traits to represent individuals in “personality models,” which are what the brain uses to predict behaviour. As you learn more about a person, the brain continues to combine their personality traits to create accurate and complete models. It is for this reason that parents may be able to predict their child’s behaviour.
Social cognition disorders, like autism, are also linked to the anterior medial prefrontal cortex. Research from Cornell suggests that these disorders are due to a person’s inability to accurately develop these personality models.
Just as fascinating is a study conducted by scientists from Japan’s National Institute of Genetics in Shizuoka Prefecture, which took advantage of the larval zebrafish’s translucent head, and the brightness of the green flourescent protein (GFP) to track how the fish take in their environment.
When neurons are activated, calcium concentration increases in nerve cells, which illuminates the GFP. Through the illumination of this protein, researchers could observe brain activity during predation by creating transgenic fish (fish with a GFP gene) that express GFP in their optic tetum (the centre of visual processing in the brain).
Researchers first recorded the fish’s response to a moving dot on a screen and next to paramecium, a common prey of the fish. The stimuli caused neurons to flash across the brain, which corresponded to the directional movement of the dot and paramecium. Using real-time video, scientists observed the zebrafish’s brain activity, as it responded to its environment.
In the future, these techniques will be used to observe and map the neural activities implicated in other forms of thinking and learning, taking scientists one step closer to understanding the mysteries of the human brain. However, as far as someone being able to see my thoughts, I’d prefer to keep those to myself, thank you.