Machine translation of cortical activity to text with an encoder–decoder framework


A decade after speech was first decoded from human brain signals, accuracy and speed remain far below that of natural speech. Here we show how to decode the electrocorticogram with high accuracy and at natural-speech rates. Taking a cue from recent advances in machine translation, we train a recurrent neural network to encode each sentence-length sequence of neural activity into an abstract representation, and then to decode this representation, word by word, into an English sentence. For each participant, data consist of several spoken repeats of a set of 30–50 sentences, along with the contemporaneous signals from ~250 electrodes distributed over peri-Sylvian cortices. Average word error rates across a held-out repeat set are as low as 3%. Finally, we show how decoding with limited data can be improved with transfer learning, by training certain layers of the network under multiple participants’ data.

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Fig. 1: The decoding pipeline.
Fig. 2: WERs of the decoded sentences.
Fig. 3: WER of the decoded MOCHA-1 sentences for encoder–decoder models trained with transfer learning.
Fig. 4: The contributions of each anatomical area to decoding, as measured by the gradient of the loss function with respect to the input data (see “Anatomical contributions” for details).
Fig. 5: Electrode coverage and contributions.
Fig. 6: Graphical model for the decoding process.
Fig. 7: Network architecture.

Data availability

Deidentified copies of the data used in this study will be provided upon reasonable request. Please contact E.F.C. via e-mail with any inquiries. Source data for the figures are likewise available upon request; please contact J.G.M. via e-mail with inquiries.

Code availability

The code used to train and test the encoder–decoders is available at Code used to assemble data and generate figures is also available upon reasonable request; please contact J.G.M. via e-mail with any inquiries.


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The project was funded by a research contract under Facebook’s Sponsored Academic Research Agreement. Data were collected and preprocessed by members of the Chang laboratory, some (MOCHA-TIMIT) under NIH grant no. U01 NS098971. Some neural networks were trained using GPUs generously donated by the Nvidia Corporation. We thank M. Leonard, B. Dichter and P. Hullett for comments on a draft of the manuscript and thank J. Burke for suggesting bipolar referencing.

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J.G.M. conceived and implemented the decoder and all analyses thereof, except the comparison to the phoneme-based decoder, which was conceived and implemented by D.A.M. E.F.C. led the research project. J.G.M. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors.

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Correspondence to Joseph G. Makin or Edward F. Chang.

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Competing interests

This work was funded in part by Facebook Reality Labs. UCSF holds patents related to speech decoding.

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Supplementary Fig. 1 and Supplementary Tables 1–6.

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Makin, J.G., Moses, D.A. & Chang, E.F. Machine translation of cortical activity to text with an encoder–decoder framework. Nat Neurosci 23, 575–582 (2020).

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