Memories are made of *this*

A new study has proven it is possible to get some insight into a person’s thoughts simply through a brain scan. But while it could help research into memory loss, it’s not quite to the point of literally reading people’s minds.

The research at University College London follows on from a previous study there which scanned bloodflow in the brain while test subjects played a virtual reality game. It proved possible to work out where in the game world the player’s character was positioned simply by the activity detected in the scan. This wasn’t a case of “seeing” what the player could see at that moment, but rather deducing it from their detectable memories of previous movements.

The new study, to be published in Current Biology, aimed to extend the technique to look at more detailed information in a memory, rather than just movement and location. It involved test subjects being shown three film clips and later being asked to think back and remember what they had seen. This technique was used to make sure that none of the three memories would be significantly stronger than the other two, which could have distorted the results.

It turned out that by looking at both the strength and the pattern of the brain activity, the researchers could correctly work out which of the clips the subject was remembering. That’s particularly significant as it appears to be the first time it’s been proven that a brain scan can distinguish between different memories.

A neuroscience professor told the BBC that although the technique couldn’t literally tell what somebody was thinking, it did suggest other possibilities could be explored, such as the difference between a genuine memory and imagination, or between a recent and distant memory.

There’s also hope that by learning more about how the brain forms and recalls memories, it may be possible to learn more about the causes and potential treatment of conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

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