Interview conducted in Ottawa in October 2011 with Adrian Owen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at Western University
You came to Canada from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge in England. How was the transition from Cambridge to Western University?
Surprisingly straightforward. Western was extremely welcoming, and people were keen to make settling in as easy as possible. What’s great about Western is its fabulous imaging program. Its scanner is identical to the one we left in Cambridge. So really, it was a matter of packing, moving and starting again as soon as we arrived. Within a month of our arrival, we completed our first MRI project.
As one of the world’s top neuroscientists, you’ve received international attention for your research on cognitive function in people with little or no conscious brain activity. What advantages does Canada offer a community where the top talent is mobile?
It’s obvious that I’m going to be able to achieve things here that I couldn’t have in the UK. In part, that’s due to having the opportunity to start again. I built my research program at Cambridge gradually over nearly 20 years, so it was bolted together in a rather piecemeal way. The CERC program has allowed me to design the research program I want to conduct from the top down, with a nearly blank slate to start with and enough money to employ the people really needed rather than whoever happened to be around when I received funding for a particular project. Since my arrival, many people have contacted me from across Canada, so I already have collaborators in Halifax and Vancouver. That sort of networking is not something I found easy to do in the UK. Having access to expertise and patients from across the country makes the work much easier.
Are the answers you’re seeking to be found through a cross-disciplinary approach?
Absolutely. In 2006, we showed for the first time using fMRI that a patient who appeared vegetative was, in fact, conscious. Consequently, brain imaging technology offered new insight into the vegetative state. Many of our studies also throw up new ethical questions, showing us the need to rethink some of the ethical frameworks used to make decisions about these patients. I’m not an ethicist, so I rely on collaborations with ethicists to work out how we deal with the research results. Philosophers are interested because working with these patients can teach us about consciousness itself. What makes us what we are and feel the way we do?
In Canada, how many people are in vegetative states?
This is a question nobody can answer because vegetative state isn’t a disease in itself. It can be caused by car accidents, traumatic brain injuries, or anything resulting in a loss of oxygen to the brain. Some patients last many years, others not very long. Some are in intensive care units or long-term nursing facilities, and some go out into the community and are cared for at home. Therefore, it’s very difficult to discover their exact number, the length of their situation, and their true condition. A significant minority may actually be conscious and aware. I’m really excited to get out into the community to find these answers and discover whether we can re-diagnose some patients to more accurately determine their condition.
Does your research offer these patients any hope?
First, the more you know about any individual patient, the better are your chances of helping them. There’s no proven treatment or therapy; I’m not going to pretend there is. People used to think nothing could be done for these patients, so research wasn’t funded. Now everybody’s interested, so the profile is raised and things start to happen. Over the last 15 years, I’ve seen tremendous changes and injections of funding—my Canada Excellence Research Chair is a testament to that. Our results show there are important things to discover about these patients, and the more we discover, the more likely we’ll be able to move toward things like therapies for potential rehabilitation.
In seven years, what do you hope to be able to say has advanced in the field of cognitive neuroscience, or that you have achieved?
In the end, it’s not just about this patient group; it’s about the different issues this sort of work presents. I’d really like to bring everything together in a centre of excellence at Western for research into consciousness and its disorders—a centre where research from many disciplines can come together to be greater than the sum of its parts.