The hope is that the research could someday lead to a gadget capable of translating the thoughts of soldiers who suffered brain injuries in combat or even stroke patients in hospitals. But the research also raises concerns that such mind-reading technology could be used to interrogate the enemy.
Armed with a $4 million grant from the Army, scientists are studying brain signals to try to decipher what a person is thinking and to whom the person wants to direct the message.
The project is a collaboration among researchers at the University of California, Irvine; Carnegie Mellon University; and the University of Maryland.
The scientists use brain wave-reading technology known as electroencephalography, or EEG, which measures the brain's electrical activity through electrodes placed on the scalp.
It works like this: Volunteers wear an electrode cap and are asked to think of a word chosen by the researchers, who then analyze the brain activity.
In the future, scientists hope to develop thought-recognition software that would allow a computer to speak or type out a person's thought.
"To have a person think in a free manner and then figure out what that is, we're years away from that," said lead researcher Michael D'Zmura, who heads UC Irvine's cognitive sciences department.
D'Zmura said such a system would require extensive training by people trying to send a message and dismisses the notion that thoughts can be forced out.