In Brief

'Neural atlas' of the brain shows how we process words

New map could allow for instantaneous language translation in the future

Brain

Scientists have created a "neural atlas" of the brain that shows how the meanings of words correspond to different regions.

The map, created by neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, displays how each word triggers reactions in specific parts, turning spoken language into intricate patterns of meaning.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_original","fid":"94238","attributes":{"class":"media-image"}}]]

"Our goal was to build a giant atlas that shows how one specific aspect of language is represented in the brain, in this case semantics, or the meanings of words," said researcher Jack Gallant.

Scientists recorded the brain activity of English-speaking volunteers while they listened to stories read out on The Moth Radio Hour, a US radio show. They then cross-referenced the words of the stories with the brain activity of each participant to show how groups of similar words triggered similar responses in more than 50,000 pea-sized spots all over the brain.

They believe that the map could allow clinicians to track the neural activity of patients who have difficulty communicating and then match that data to semantic language maps to determine what they are trying to express. It could also potentially allow for an implant that decodes brain signals into different languages as a person speaks.

"It is possible that this approach could be used to decode information about what words a person is hearing, reading or possibly even thinking," said study author Alexander Huth.

"Described as a 'tour de force' by one researcher who was not involved in the study, the atlas demonstrates how modern imaging can transform our knowledge of how the brain performs some of its most important tasks," says The Guardian.

"The data is certainly intriguing," Susan Bookheimer, a neuroimaging expert in Los Angeles, told The Wall Street Journal. "It's suggestive, but much more work is needed to understand what it means."

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