Brain Scans Can Detect Who Has Better Skills (#GotBitcoin?)
Experts say newly published research represents a step toward systems that can assess levels of expertise and competence using neurological data. Brain Scans Can Detect Who Has Better Skills
To gain new insight into how highly specialized workers learn skills or react to stressful situations, researchers are leveraging advanced scanning technologies to look at what’s happening inside the brain.
In the latest findings, a team of researchers studied surgeons as they performed surgical simulations and found they could identify novice from experienced surgeons by analyzing brain scans taken as the physicians worked.
The researchers, who described their findings Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, said that the part of the brain involved in planning complex behaviors was more active in the novices. Skilled surgeons had more activity in the motor cortex, which is important for movement. The researchers, who developed a machine-learning system to analyze the scans, also showed that training resulted in a shift toward higher activity in the motor cortex.
Checking For Skills
Brain activity between skilled surgical practitioners and unskilled practioners differ, according to new research using brains scans.
In total, the brains of roughly 30 surgeons and trainees were monitored while they performed pattern-cutting tasks that are part of professional tests for certifications. The brain-data metrics were more accurate than current professional tests used to assess the same manual skills, according to the study. The researchers said the system is experimental and still in early testing.
Biomedical engineers not involved in the research called the findings exciting and a step toward systems that can assess levels of expertise and competence using neurological data. They add to a growing body of research on the brain activity of aircraft pilots, air traffic controllers, athletes, doctors and others to gauge mental workload, skills learning and hand-eye coordination. Such information could have implications for how workers are trained and how they do their jobs, bioengineers said.
Researchers think such devices could be used to give workers feedback about their performance and to predict who would be a good baseball player or surgeon.
Neural data could offer more objective measures of performance and proficiency than medical-certification boards now use, according to the research team, which included engineers and surgeons. Ultimately, they want to improve the way surgeons are trained, not limit what they can do, they said. A future iteration of their technology could be used to assess comfort levels with certain medical procedures or to help doctors figure out whether they’re rusty on certain skills or too fatigued to operate, they said.
The team is looking to test their system in more realistic settings and to include tests of cognitive skills, according to the researchers. For the current study, they assessed only motor performance.
Critical to the success of the technology is the “social issue of acceptance,” said Suvranu De, the director of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Modeling, Simulation and Imaging in Medicine in Troy, N.Y. Doctors must want to use it, said Dr. De, who co-led the research. Some neuroethicists worry about making brain assessments compulsory.
In recent years, tools to measure human-brain activity while people are active—rather than sitting still in giant scanners—have improved and become more widely available. That allows scientists to get data in environments closer to what a person would experience normally.
The researchers in Wednesday’s paper relied on a technology known as fNIRS, short for functional near-infrared spectroscopy. A person wears a skull cap embedded with tiny lasers that beam near-infrared light into the skull. Some of that light reflects back out and can be captured by a detector placed nearby.
The quality of the detected light gives scientists clues as to whether blood flowing to the brain is oxygenated or not. An increase in oxygenated blood suggests more brain activity. The device, which had 16 of such optical sensors, doesn’t measure neural activity directly.
Hasan Ayaz, a Drexel University biomedical engineer experienced with building fNIRS devices, said the basic principles reported in the study, in which he wasn’t involved, could eventually be useful in fields like design and marketing to understand how people use products or make purchasing decisions. There is growing interest in such optical sensors among researchers world-wide, he said. Similar technology is being used to detect brain bleeds, he added.
Silicon Valley investors looking to develop mass market brain interfaces are also experimenting with fNIRS and other similar technologies. Facebook Inc. is reportedly developing brain optical imaging tech. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In the past year or so, the decades-old fNIRS technology has “had this surprising renaissance … because of [Silicon Valley’s] investment,” said Elizabeth Hillman, a biomedical engineer at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute.
The resurgence is already raising ethical questions about how to act on brain data acquired with such devices because the scans “may not truly be capturing all aspects” of a person’s performance, she said. The new research, in which she wasn’t involved, “is interesting because it could be a valuable tool for training,” but more work needs to be done to mitigate the risk of discriminating people based on incomplete data, she added.