Canadian scientists scan your brain, know how you want to hold your hand

O Canada -- your wacky scientists are at it again. And this time, the bright minds over at the University of Western Ontario have their third eye set on a certain precognitive prize. Avoiding the messier open-skull, electrode-imbedding alternative, researchers at the Centre for Brain and Mind employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to successfully predict the action of participants' hands before they'd moved a muscle. After a year of brain-scanning trials, scientists learned to accurately foretell which signals were linked to one of three set actions: grabbing the top of an object, its bottom, or simply reaching out to touch it. Like our clairvoyant cousin's previous beverage-predicting breakthrough, the spoils of this study go to prosthetic limb motion control and the paralyzed who'll use it. We know what you're thinking, but we're not going to make the obvious Thing joke here. Instead, we have to wonder -- What Would Ms. Cleo Do? Full release after the break, but you already knew that.

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Western researchers can predict future actions from human brain activity

By Communications Staff
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Bringing the real world into the brain scanner, researchers at The University of Western Ontario from The Centre for Brain and Mind ( can now determine the action a person was planning, mere moments before that action is actually executed.

The findings were published this week in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience, in the paper, "Decoding Action Intentions from Preparatory Brain Activity in Human Parieto-Frontal Networks."

"This is a considerable step forward in our understanding of how the human brain plans actions," says Jason Gallivan, a Western Neuroscience PhD student, who was the first author on the paper.

Over the course of the one-year study, human subjects had their brain activity scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they performed one of three hand movements: grasping the top of an object, grasping the bottom of the object, or simply reaching out and touching the object. The team found that by using the signals from many brain regions, they could predict, better than chance, which of the actions the volunteer was merely intending to do, seconds later.

"Neuroimaging allows us to look at how action planning unfolds within human brain areas without having to insert electrodes directly into the human brain. This is obviously far less intrusive," explains Western Psychology professor Jody Culham, who was the paper's senior author.

Gallivan says the new findings could also have important clinical implications: "Being able to predict a human's desired movements using brain signals takes us one step closer to using those signals to control prosthetic limbs in movement-impaired patient populations, like those who suffer from spinal cord injuries or locked-in syndrome."

This research is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). A past recipient of the CIHR Brain Star Award, Gallivan is funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) graduate scholarship.