Brain imaging headband measures how our minds align when we communicate

February 27, 2017
Cartoon image of brain 'coupling' during communication. Credit: Drexel University

Great ideas so often get lost in translation—from the math teacher who can't get through to his students, to a stand-up comedian who bombs during an open mic night.

But how can we measure whether our audiences understand what we're trying to convey? And better yet, how can we improve that exchange?

Drexel University biomedical engineers, in collaboration with Princeton University psychologists, are using a wearable -imaging device to see just how brains sync up when humans interact. It is one of many applications for this functional near-infrared spectroscopy (or fNIRS) system, which uses light to measure neural activity during real-life situations and can be worn like a headband.

Published in Scientific Reports on Monday, a new study shows that the fNIRS device can successfully measure brain synchronization during conversation. The technology can now be used to study everything from doctor-patient communication, to how people consume cable news.

"Being able to look at how multiple brains interact is an emerging context in social neuroscience," said Hasan Ayaz, PhD, an associate research professor in Drexel's School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, who led the research team. "We live in a social world where everybody is interacting. And we now have a tool that can give us richer information about the brain during everyday tasks—such as natural communication—that we could not receive in artificial lab settings or from single brain studies."

The current study is based on previous research from Uri Hasson, PhD, associate professor at Princeton University, who has used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study the brain mechanisms underlying the production and comprehension of language. Hasson has found that a listener's brain activity actually mirrors the speaker's brain when he or she is telling story about a real-life experience. And higher coupling is associated with better understanding.

However, traditional brain imaging methods have certain limitations. In particular, fMRI requires subjects to lie down motionlessly in a noisy scanning environment. With this kind of set-up, it is not possible to simultaneously scan the brains of multiple individuals who are speaking face-to-face.

This is why the Drexel researchers sought to investigate whether the portable fNIRS system could be a more effective approach to probe the brain-to-brain coupling question in natural settings.

For their study, a native English speaker and two native Turkish speakers told an unrehearsed, real-life story in their native language. Their stories were recorded and their brains were scanned using fNIRS. Fifteen English speakers then listened to the recording, in addition to a story that was recorded at a live storytelling event.

The researchers targeted the prefrontal and parietal areas of the brain, which include cognitive and higher order areas that are involved in a person's capacity to discern beliefs, desires and goals of others. They hypothesized that a listener's brain activity would correlate with the speaker's only when listening to a story they understood (the English version). A second objective of the study was to compare the fNIRS results with data from a similar study that had used fMRI, in order to compare the two methods.

They found that when the fNIRS measured the oxygenation and deoxygenation of blood cells in the test subject's brains, the listeners' matched only with the English speakers. These results also correlated with the previous fMRI study.

This new research supports fNIRS as a viable future tool to study brain-to-brain coupling during social interaction. The system can be used to offer important information about how to better communicate in many different environments, including classrooms, business meetings, political rallies and doctors' offices.

"This would not be feasible with fMRI. There are too many challenges," said Banu Onaral, PhD, the H. H. Sun Professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. "Now that we know fNIRS is a feasible tool, we are moving into an exciting era when we can know so much more about how the brain works as people engage in everyday tasks."

Explore further: Researchers measure how our brain reacts to Google Glass

More information: Scientific Reports , DOI: 10.1038/srep43293 , http://www.nature.com/articles/srep43293

Related Stories

Researchers measure how our brain reacts to Google Glass

August 11, 2016
"Smart" eyewear—that can integrate augmented reality with your own, feed you live information about your surroundings and even be used in the operating room—is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Researchers publish first study of brain activation in MS using fNIRS

August 27, 2014
Using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), Kessler Foundation researchers have shown differential brain activation patterns between people with multiple sclerosis (MS) and healthy controls. This is the first MS ...

Hearing with your eyes—a Western style of speech perception

November 15, 2016
Which parts of a person's face do you look at when you listen them speak? Lip movements affect the perception of voice information from the ears when listening to someone speak, but native Japanese speakers are mostly unaffected ...

Missed connections: As people age, memory-related brain activity loses cohesion

November 23, 2016
Groups of brain regions that synchronize their activity during memory tasks become smaller and more numerous as people age, according to a study published in PLOS Computational Biology.

First brain images of African infants enable research into cognitive effects of nutrition

April 22, 2014
Brain activity of babies in developing countries could be monitored from birth to reveal the first signs of cognitive dysfunction, using a new technique piloted by a London-based university collaboration.

Recommended for you

Discovery deepens understanding of brain's sensory circuitry

December 12, 2017
Because they provide an exemplary physiological model of how the mammalian brain receives sensory information, neural structures called "mouse whisker barrels" have been the subject of study by neuroscientists around the ...

Intermittent fasting found to increase cognitive functions in mice

December 12, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—The Daily Mail spoke with the leader of a team of researchers with the National Institute on Aging in the U.S. and reports that they have found that putting mice on a diet consisting of eating nothing every ...

Neuroscientists show deep brain waves occur more often during navigation and memory formation

December 12, 2017
UCLA neuroscientists are the first to show that rhythmic waves in the brain called theta oscillations happen more often when someone is navigating an unfamiliar environment, and that the more quickly a person moves, the more ...

Stuttering: Stop signals in the brain disturb speech flow

December 12, 2017
One per cent of adults and five per cent of children are unable to achieve what most of us take for granted—speaking fluently. Instead, they struggle with words, often repeating the beginning of a word, for example "G-g-g-g-g-ood ...

How Zika virus induces congenital microcephaly

December 12, 2017
Epidemiological studies show that in utero fetal infection with the Zika virus (ZIKV) may lead to microcephaly, an irreversible congenital malformation of the brain characterized by an incomplete development of the cerebral ...

Selecting sounds: How the brain knows what to listen to

December 11, 2017
How is it that we are able—without any noticeable effort—to listen to a friend talk in a crowded café or follow the melody of a violin within an orchestra?

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.