At UCLA’s Laboratory of Integrative Neuroimaging Technology, researchers use functional MRI brain scans to observe brain signal changes that take place during mental activity. They then employ computerized machine learning (ML) methods to study these patterns and identify the cognitive state — or sometimes the thought process — of human subjects. The technique is called “brain reading” or “brain decoding.”
In a new study, the UCLA research team describes several crucial advances in this field, using fMRI and machine learning methods to perform “brain reading” on smokers experiencing nicotine cravings.
The data from fMRI scans taken of the study participants was then analyzed. Traditional machine learning methods were augmented by Markov processes, which use past history to predict future states. By measuring the brain networks active over time during the scans, the resulting machine learning algorithms were able to anticipate changes in subjects’ underlying neurocognitive structure, predicting with a high degree of accuracy (90 percent for some of the models tested) what they were watching and, as far as cravings were concerned, how they were reacting to what they viewed.
The algorithm was able to complete or “predict” the subjects’ mental states and thought processes in much the same way that Internet search engines or texting programs on cell phones anticipate and complete a sentence or request before the user is finished typing. And this machine learning method based on Markov processes demonstrated a large improvement in accuracy over traditional approaches, the researchers said.
Machine learning methods, in general, create a “decision layer” — essentially a boundary separating the different classes one needs to distinguish. For example, values on one side of the boundary might indicate that a subject believes various test statements and, on the other, that a subject disbelieves these statements. Researchers have found they can detect these believe–disbelieve differences with high accuracy, in effect creating a lie detector. An innovation described in the new study is a means of making these boundaries interpretable by neuroscientists, rather than an often obscure boundary created by more traditional methods, like support vector machine learning.
In future research, the neuroscientists said, they will be using these machine learning methods in a biofeedback context, showing subjects real-time brain readouts to let them know when they are experiencing cravings and how intense those cravings are, in the hopes of training them to control and suppress those cravings.
But since this clearly changes the process and cognitive state for the subject, the researchers said, they may face special challenges in trying to decode a “moving target” and in separating the “training” phase from the “prediction” phase.
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