How Computational Neuroscience Can Decode Thoughts and Actions

When we look at a landscape, listen to a song or recall a memory, what is the exact choreography taking place across the various areas of the brain? – One of the most challenging aspects about the human brain is the question how its physical structure relates to its functions. In recent years, neuroscientists have made remarkable progress in mapping the brain’s anatomy and complex connections, but we are still far from understanding how a certain behaviour is concerted across the many different perceptual, motor and cognitive systems that are distributed all over the brain. Jack Gallant is Chancellor’s Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, but his multiple affiliations also span bioengineering, biophysics, neuro- and vision science. His current research uses computer models of the human brain in order to reveal individual functional maps. His work shows that even a simple action like lifting a finger involves dozens of distinct areas, that these are organised similarly in the brains of different individuals and that mechanisms such as attention and learning can change these maps on a very short time scale. Understanding functional brain maps is a basis for finding new treatments for cognitive and neurological diseases. Combined with more accurate measuring devices and better computer models, it can also lead to brain decoding technologies that will allow us to see the inner representations of visual or auditory images, thoughts and memories. At Falling Walls, Jack shows how he works to achieve a complete functional atlas of the human brain and shares some insights into the very first working brain decoder.

Jack Gallant’s lab at UC Berkeley uses cutting edge neuroimaging methods and computational models to study how the human brain encodes and maps sensory and cognitive information. Gallant created a “brain decoder” which turns brain data from an fMRI scanner into dynamic visuals on a computer screen, a method that allows to show representations of images and videos seen by a person under the scanner. This ground-breaking development paves the way for the reproduction of internal images: language, thoughts, memories, even dreams, and provides new insights into the way the brain processes information.

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