"This research is a major step toward understanding what features of speech are represented in the human brain" Knight said. "Brian's analysis can reproduce the sound the patient heard, and you can actually recognize the word, although not at a perfect level."
Knight predicts that this success can be extended to imagined, internal verbalizations, because scientific studies have shown that when people are asked to imagine speaking a word, similar brain regions are activated as when the person actually utters the word.
"With neuroprosthetics, people have shown that it's possible to control movement with brain activity," Knight said. "But that work, while not easy, is relatively simple compared to reconstructing language. This experiment takes that earlier work to a whole new level."
Based on earlier work with ferrets
The current research builds on work by other researchers about how animals encode sounds in the brain's auditory cortex. In fact, some researchers, including the study's coauthors at the University of Maryland, have been able to guess the words ferrets were read by scientists based on recordings from the brain, even though the ferrets were unable to understand the words.
The ultimate goal of the UC Berkeley study was to explore how the human brain encodes speech and determine which aspects of speech are most important for understanding.
"At some point, the brain has to extract away all that auditory information and just map it onto a word, since we can understand speech and words regardless of how they sound," Pasley said. "The big question is, What is the most meaningful unit of speech? A syllable, a phone, a phoneme? We can test these hypotheses using the data we get from these recordings."
|Contact: Robert Sanders|
University of California - Berkeley