Omneuron and fMRI
Mind Over Matter, With a Machine’s Help
By JASON PONTIN
Published: August 26, 2007
Omneuron is one of a number of new companies that are commercializing a brain-scanning technology called real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Using large scanners to measure blood flow to different parts of the brain, the technology makes the brain’s activity visible by revealing which of its parts are busiest when we perform different tasks.
While fMRI dates back to the early 1990s, hitherto it has been used mainly by doctors in hospitals to make diagnoses. The commercialization of brain scanning is a recent development, spurred by the refinement of the technology. Omneuron, which Dr. deCharms founded in 2001 and whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, uses fMRI to teach people how to play with their own heads. Other entrepreneurs are working on ways to deploy fMRI as a lie detector, a tool for conducting marketing research or an instrument to make brain surgeries safer and more precise.
Here’s how Omneuron uses fMRI to treat chronic pain: A patient slides into the coffin-like scanner and watches a computer-generated flame projected on the screen of virtual-reality goggles; the flame’s intensity reflects the neural activity of regions of the brain involved in the perception of pain. Using a variety of mental techniques — for instance, imagining that a painful area is being flooded with soothing chemicals — most people can, with a little concentration, make the flame wax or wane. As the flame wanes, the patient feels better. Superficially similar to an older technology, electroencephalogram biofeedback, which measures electrical feedback across multiple areas of the brain, fMRI feedback measures the blood flow in precise areas of the brain.
“We believe that people will use real-time fMRI feedback to hone cognitive strategies that will increase activation of brain regions,” Dr. deCharms said. With practice and repetition, he said, this could lead to “long-term changes in the brain.”
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