Getting Inside the Other Guy's Head

E-mail Tom Kevan

The news is full of stories telling of instances where sensors have made it possible to better understand our physical world, from earthquakes and tsunamis to volcanic activity and undersea seismic disruptions. For some time now, they have also helped us understand disruptive conditions inside our own heads.

Brain function is both bioelectric and biochemical. The brain communicates with itself and directs its functions through the creation of brain waves of differing frequencies. Our mental and emotional states largely depend on the frequency of our brain waves.

Medical researchers have been teaching people to change their brains' bioelectric activity through a method called neurofeedback, which is conditioning that rewards the brain for activity at desired frequencies and discourages activity at others.

In a USA Today article, Adele Slaughter describes how neurofeedback is used to treat dyslexia. But this technique is also used to address a variety of other learning disabilities, such as ADD, AD/HD, and autism.

During a neurofeedback session, sensors are placed on the patient's head. These pick up brain waves, which are displayed on a computer screen. The feedback portion of this technique comes when the patient is asked to carry out certain tasks, which help to replace abnormal rhythms with normal brain waves.

Imaging and Its Implications
This sensor-based digital imaging enables us to observe—and thus better understand—brain activity. Two types of imaging are electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG). The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders defines EEG as "a neurological diagnostic procedure that records the changes in electrical potentials (brain waves) in various parts of the brain." It goes on to say that MEG records not only the brain's electrical field but also its magnetic field. This information is different from that provided by computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI and fMRI), which provide "still, structural, and anatomical information." MEG supplements the information recorded by the encephalogram by providing a complete picture of cerebral events, showing the brain "in action" rather than as a still image.

Recently, the value of MEG's 3D brain mapping technology was affirmed when the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science in Leipzig, Germany, upgraded its equipment with the Elekta Neuromag.

What makes this so fascinating to me is that these sensor-based systems demystify mental and emotional conditions that plague so many people, breaking them down into electrical and chemical processes. Perhaps with the added information that this technology provides, the medical and educational professions can help people with learning disabilities adapt to their condition.