Mind Reading event video now online

Mind Reading featured MC Russell Brown, A/P Brett Cowan and Dr Donna Rose Addis.

If you missed this awesome event, you can now view the live brain scan analysis online.

We have four videos showing the different sections of the night:

  • Introduction to MRI
  • Mind Reading in Motion
  • Memorable Experiences
  • Truth or Lie

Let us know what you think and enjoy!


Truth or Lie?

This was the critical question answered in the ‘Mind Reading’ event on Wednesday. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scans, Dr Donna Rose Addis and Associate Professor Brett Cowan were asked to spot which pattern of brain activity looked most like a true memory.

The event was organised by the Centre for Brain Research and the Centre for Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging (CAMRI) at The University of Auckland, as part of Brain Awareness Week. Promising to reveal the science of brain imaging, ‘Mind Reading’ offered an entertaining look at the capabilities of brain imaging thanks to MRI technology.

So could they do it? Well the answer was a hesitant yes! At the live event held at the Auckland Museum Events Centre, MC journalist Russell Brown pushed cognitive neuroscientist Dr Addis to make a choice, and it turned out her pick was indeed the scan taken while participant Reece Roberts was remembering a true experience.

The central premise of the event revolved around psychology student Reece being put through an exciting experience – in this case a whiz around a race track – which he then had to remember. In the alternate scenario, he then had to ‘remember’ an event which never happened. In other words he had to lie and try to fool the scanner.

Memory and imagination actually use overlapping brain regions and so the scans from each scenario looked remarkably similar. The packed out public audience of 400 held their breaths while the choice was made, and finally the correct answer was revealed. It turned out that increased activity in the hippocampus, which organises memory, was the clues which gave the game away for Dr Addis.

So does this mean that MRI scanners could be used for lie detection? Well the answer was still a resounding no. The technology shows increasing promise for understanding human behaviour and thought, but is not reliable when scanning just one individual. This is because scientific experiments are usually conducted with a large group of people and repeated many times so that the responses are averaged out. 

However MRI technology, like the 3T Siemens scanner at CAMRI, is still hugely exciting for the future. With international research revealing that thoughts can be turned into words, and that people in comas still imagine moving, the sci-fi scenario of mind reading isn’t too far away.

Truth or lie? Can MRI help scientists read our minds?

 It’s the slogan of a new game show on TV3, but can science help us tell the two apart?

This blog was first posted on the Science Media Centre Sciblogs site. By Dr Donna Rose Addis, Centre for Brain Research, University of Auckland

Mind Reading has always been thought of as a superhuman skill, but fMRI technology is bringing us ever closer to this goal. So-called ‘functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging’ tracks blood oxygen levels across the brain, allowing scientists to visualise what brain regions ‘light up’ during different types of cognition. Of course this is an indirect measure, as we assume that the more oxygen a brain area consumes, the more it is doing – as thinking is hungry work!

Nevertheless the advances in functional MRI (fMRI) since the 1990s have been met with great enthusiasm from the scientific community – in the 16 years between 1991 and 2007, over 19,000 peer-reviewed articles reporting on fMRI research were published (Logothetis, 2008). Coupled with the increasing availability of and access to fMRI technology, this method has come to dominate brain research and led to the emergence of a new field: cognitive neuroscience. fMRI studies have investigated the neural underpinnings of every aspect of thought and emotion, from executing physical movements, language and mathematics, to the more complex and (some would argue) uniquely human abilities of remembering, imagining, and understanding the self.

Despite the exciting technological innovations – and the seductive images of brain regions ‘lighting up’ with activity – there are limits to what we can understand about the brain and cognition from brain imaging. The sin of over-interpreting MRI data usually comes about from a logical fallacy called ‘reverse inference’. Essentially, a reverse inference is when one looks at a pattern of brain activity and from that, makes conclusions about what that brain (or its owner) is thinking or feeling. That is, engaging in a form of mind reading.

The reality is though that in a typical fMRI study, we scan 15–30 different participants and then we put together all their brain scans to get an average picture of brain activity during a particular cognitive task. This averaging is important because everyone’s brain is slightly different in its anatomy and its functioning, and we have to cancel out any idiosyncratic fluctuations (or “noise”). So could MRI ever be used to tell what a single person is actually thinking?

Liars Inc.

The most popular use of this skill would be lie detection tests, and that’s not as futuristic as it sounds. In the US, a company called ‘No Lie MRI Inc.’ is already claiming to “provide unbiased methods for the detection of deception and other information stored in the brain”. However these scans inherently focus on one person – the defendant – making it impossible to know if the defendant’s brain activity shows signs of deception or if it just happens that their brain activates differently from the average. Another issue is that fMRI data can be easily corrupted. In order for lie detection scans to work, the experimenter would have to ensure the defendant is compliant and thinking about the episode in question. It would be easy, however, for a defendant to thwart the lie detection process by just thinking about random things and so ‘scrambling’ their brain activity.

So although fMRI is not a mind reading device, I don’t mean to imply that at its current stage of development, brain imaging cannot provide us with any useful information about the brain. MRI has revolutionised our science and significantly expanded our knowledge about the inner workings of the brain. It has sparked new hypotheses and theories that in turn have changed how we think about the mind and brain.

Furthermore, our methods for human brain mapping are advancing all the time. Not to definitively say what someone is thinking, but to infer statistically what they might be thinking. So if the innovation in the last 20 years of brain imaging is anything to go by, before we know it we may well have mind reading apps on our phones, and scanning tests on daytime TV!

You can find out more about ‘Mind Reading’ in a live scan event during Brain Awareness Week. Dr Donna Rose Addis and colleague Associate Professor Brett Cowan will explore the brain’s inner workings, discovering the origins of imagination and memory. Chaired by journalist Russell Brown, the event will feature live analysis of brain scans at Auckland Museum.

The event will also go online on Thursday 15th March for the rest of New Zealand.

When: Wednesday 14 March 7.00 – 8.30pm

Where: Auckland Museum

Tickets: $10 (plus $3 booking fee)

Book online or phone 09 306 7048. For more details, see www.cbr.auckland.ac.nz/mindreading or @TeamMRI

Imagining the future

The Mind Reading team aim to use MRI to detect the difference between a lie and a memory at the event in Brain Awareness Week.

Here Dr Donna Rose Addis explains her research showing how memory is used to imagine future events. You can listen to her speaking on Radio NZ Summer Nights, or view a video on Facebook.

Meet the Mind Reading Team

Donna Rose will be leading the MRI analysis for the live Mind Reading event

Over the next few days we will be introducing the Mind Reading team who will be bringing you the exciting live MRI event in March for Brain Awareness Week.

First up is Dr Donna Rose Addis

Donna Rose is an up and coming young researcher, who studies memory and imagination. Her work is exciting much interest, and she was recently awarded both the prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowship and the 2010 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize.

Donna Rose is a cognitive neuroscientist in the Centre for Brain Research, where she is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. She leads the Memory Lab team, and uses neuropsychological and neuroimaging techniques to understand how we remember our pasts and imagine our futures, and how these abilities change with age, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

Dr Addis grew up in Mangere East, Auckland. She was the dux of Aorere College and New Zealand’s Top All-Round Scholar of Pacific Island Descent in 1995. She completed her BA and MA in Psychology at The University of Auckland. She then undertook a PhD as a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Toronto, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University. She returned to New Zealand in 2008.

Donna Rose will be leading the MRI analysis for the Mind Reading event, trying to use this exciting technology to work out if she can tell the difference between imagination and memory. Of course imagination is a nice word for lying… and so we’ll also be testing the lie detection powers of MRI!

CBR cognitive neuroscientist wins Prime Minister’s Science Prize

Centre for Brain Research scientist Dr Donna Rose Addis has received the 2010 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize

Dr Donna Rose Addis

Dr Donna Rose Addis won the 2010 Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize

Dr Addis, from the Department of Psychology and Centre for Brain Research, won the $200,000 prize for her world-leading research on memory and imagination that may lead to new therapies for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to depression.

“I’m interested in how our memories aren’t just for remembering – they also allow us to imagine future events and know who we are,” she says. “My field of research not only looks at the psychology of cognitive processes like memory or imagination but also their neurological basis – the brain regions involved and how they interact.”

“Our memories seem to play out like movies in our minds but research has shown that, in fact, the details are stored as fragments in different areas of the brain and when we remember we have to put all of the pieces back together again. Storing memories in this way also allows the fragments to be used when we imagine future events – individual details can be taken from a variety of memories and put together into an imaginary scenario.”

Dr Addis uses MRI scans to study the hippocampus – a part of the brain that is critical in reconstructing memories as well as constructing future events. Her work will help scientists to learn how the imagination is affected by diseases that destroy the hippocampus such as Alzheimer’s disease

“Being able to remember our past and imagine our futures is an important part of who we are. Our rich memories of our lives contribute to our sense of identity and one of the issues facing people with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease is how the loss of those memories impacts on their sense of self. I studied this as part of my masters degree and I’m looking forward to picking it up again in my latest work.”

Dr Addis will also launch a new area of research examining how the ability to remember and imagine may change in people with depression. “There is some evidence that the hippocampus is damaged in depression and it may be that this impairs people’s ability to construct memories and future events,” she says.

Dr Addis studied for her undergraduate and masters degrees at The University of Auckland before travelling to the University of Toronto for her PhD. After working as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University for three years she returned to Auckland in 2008 to establish her own laboratory. Earlier this month she received one of only ten 2010 Rutherford Discovery Fellowships awarded to New Zealand’s most talented young researchers.

For her current research Dr Addis’ major scientific collaborators are her former masters supervisor Dr Lynette Tippett and Professor Michael Corballis from the Department of Psychology. She also maintains strong collaborations with colleagues from her time in the United States and Canada.

Dr Addis is from Manukau. She lives in East Tāmaki and grew up in Mangere where she attended Aorere College. She says she is very proud of her Samoan heritage and the idea of being a role model for young Pacific people as well as for young women in science. She regularly returns to her old school to talk with students and present awards, and says she feels very passionate about giving back to her community in this way.

CBR scientist awarded Rutherford Discovery Fellowship

Posted by Laura Fogg

A Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, supporting New Zealand’s most talented young researchers, has been awarded to Dr Donna Rose Addis from the Centre for Brain Research.

The inaugural fellowships, providing ten early-to-mid career researchers with up to $200,000 annually for the next five years, were announced at the national Research Honours Dinner in Christchurch on November 10th. Dr Addis is a cognitive neuroscientist from the Department of Psychology and Centre for Brain Research whose fellowship will support her research into the constructive nature of memory.

“Our memories seem to play out like movies but they’re actually stored as fragments in different areas of the brain, and when we remember we have to put all the pieces back together again,” she explains. “Storing memories in this way also allows the fragments to be used when we imagine future events.”

“One part of the brain – the hippocampus – is critical in reconstructing memories and constructing future events. My research will use neuroimaging to learn more about the role that the hippocampus plays. I will also look specifically at how depression may impair the ability of the hippocampus to construct memories and imagine.”

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships were launched this year and are expected to have significant value to the future career of the recipient. The five years of funding is extremely valuable for young scientists as it will allow them to concentrate on their research, grow their laboratories, and meet research costs. “Having a secure period of funding gives you the time to step back and look at the bigger picture. It gives you the freedom to be creative and try new things, and quite often that is when interesting breakthroughs occur,” says Dr Addis.