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

MSD Innovation Factory Selects 3 Compani…

Throughout the MSD Innovation Factory, MSD launched 7 health-related challenges to award the three most outstanding solutions. Blendarsys, Symptoma and Grupo Pulso are the winners out of 100 proposals. The...

Using Virtual Reality to Identify Brain …

Virtual reality is helping neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis, get new insight into how different brain areas assemble memories in context. In a study published Jan. 18 in...

People with Tetraplegia Gain Rapid Use o…

For a brain-computer interface (BCI) to be truly useful for a person with tetraplegia, it should be ready whenever it's needed, with minimal expert intervention, including the very first time...

East Lancashire Hospitals Chooses Cerner…

East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust (ELHT) has chosen global health information technology leader Cerner as its Preferred Supplier of a new clinical information system that will help to improve the...

Hamlyn Centre Announces Grant from Bill …

The Hamlyn Centre at Imperial College London today announces the award of a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to accelerate research into new integrated technology systems for...

Philips Debuts Fully Integrated Suite o…

Royal Philips (NYSE: PHG, AEX: PHIA), a global leader in health technology, announced the launch of its next-generation Patient Monitoring solution in the U.S. The enterprise-wide system consists of bedside...

Liverpool Awards Contract to Docobo

One of the best-known users of telehealth in England has awarded a contract to Docobo to significantly expand its service over the next three years. NHS Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group...

Augmented Reality System Lets Doctors Se…

New technology is bringing the power of augmented reality into clinical practice. The system, called ProjectDR, allows medical images such as CT scans and MRI data to be displayed directly...

Assessing Health Technology in the EU: C…

European Commission has put forward a proposal to boost cooperation amongst EU Member States for assessing health technology. Greater transparency will empower patients, by ensuring their access to information on...

ProEmpower Releases Call for Tenders to …

The ProEmpower procurers are looking for a diabetes management solution that will tackle the unmet needs in the current treatment of diabetes such as the fragmentation in today’s healthcare systems...

Biosensors Will Be Inexpensive, Do More…

When it comes to biometric sensors, human skin isn't an ally. It's an obstacle. The University of Cincinnati is developing cutting-edge methods to overcome this barrier without compromising the skin...