A research group’s claimed ability to communicate with completely paralyzed people has come under fire, prompting research misconduct investigations at a German university and at Germany’s main research agency, the German Research Foundation (DFG).
Two years ago, researchers in Germany and Switzerland claimed that by analyzing blood flow in different parts of the brain with an electronic skullcap, they could elucidate answers to yes or no questions from completely paralyzed people.
Spüler says he originally wanted to test whether a different algorithm could make the method even more accurate, but when he analyzed the data he found that the team had averaged its data in a way that ended up always producing a statistically significant result.
“With the statistical tests they use, you will always get a positive answer.” He says his attempts to get explanations from the authors were unsuccessful. “It doesn’t add up,” he says.
Birbaumer’s earlier work has helped severely disabled patients use brainwave devices to choose letters and write messages. He says the paper was a first hint that similar methods might also work with people in a completely locked-in state.
“We never said anywhere that we are confident that we can read these people’s thoughts, even their yes or no thoughts. We say this may be a useful first step.”