Brain Imaging Headband Measures How Our Minds Align when We Communicate

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 brain-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, 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' brain activity 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."

This study was conducted at the Cognitive Neuroengineering and Quantitative Experimental Research (CONQUER) Collaborative, a multi-disciplinary brain observatory at Drexel University.

Liu Y, Piazza EA, Simony E, Shewokis PA, Onaral B, Hasson U, Ayaz H.
Measuring speaker-listener neural coupling with functional near infrared spectroscopy.
Sci Rep. 2017 Feb 27;7:43293. doi: 10.1038/srep43293.

Most Popular Now

Leading Health Systems Sign On to Delive…

Royal Philips (NYSE: PHG, AEX: PHIA), a global leader in health technology, has announced the expanding adoption of its Population Health Management solutions with health systems across the globe, including...

Pflegetiger Adds Digital Health Ventures…

Since summer 2016, Pflegetiger has been developing its innovative concept of neighborhood care, a concept designed to make in-home care attractive for care professionals again. The company's revolutionary approach -...

Can Virtual Reality be Used to Manage Pa…

Virtual reality has emerged into popular culture with an ever-widening array of applications including clinical use in a pediatric healthcare center. Children undergo necessary yet painful and distressing medical procedures...

Free iPhone App could Guide MS Research…

For some diseases, a simple blood test is all that's needed to estimate severity or confirm a diagnosis. Not so for multiple sclerosis. No single lab test can tell doctors...

Using Social Media Big Data to Combat Pr…

Researchers at Dartmouth, Stanford University, and IBM Research, conducted a critical review of existing literature to determine whether social media big data can be used to understand communication and behavioral...

B.Braun Accelerator Call for Innovative …

B. Braun is one of the world's leading providers and manufacturers of healthcare solutions today. The company employs more than 60,000 employees in 64 countries and is looking for European...

'NHS Cyber Security Batsignal' Peer-to-P…

The two chairs of the largest independent communities of NHS digital leaders will launch the 'NHS Cyber Security Batsignal', a new peer-to-peer cyber security warning alerting system, at the first...

Giving Rookie Dads the Online Info they …

Expectant and new parents often turn to the internet for parenting prep, but it turns out that dads often don't seem to find the information they say they need about...

Artificial Intelligence to Evaluate Brai…

Researchers at the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki University Hospital (HUH), Finland, have developed software based on machine learning, which can independently interpret EEG signals from a premature infant...

FDA Approves Pill with Sensor that Digit…

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first drug in the U.S. with a digital ingestion tracking system. Abilify MyCite (aripiprazole tablets with sensor) has an ingestible sensor...

Philips Partners with Dutch Health Insur…

Royal Philips (NYSE: PHG, AEX: PHIA), a global leader in health technology, today announced that it is collaborating with Dutch health insurer ONVZ to provide an industry first, strategic cooperation...