A recent article on the BBC’s www.bbc.com website highlights the work of Adrian Owen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at Western University, and Lorina Naci, a postdoctoral fellow in The Owen Lab at Western.
The article explains Owen’s research into the vegetative state, or “unresponsive wakefulness syndrome”. In this state, a patient may appear to be awake—and may even fall asleep at times—but otherwise shows no reaction to the world. Patients with similar symptoms, such as those able to respond to stimuli but only on an inconsistent basis, are, on the other hand, classified as being in a “minimally conscious state.”
The fear is that vegetative patients might be conscious but unable to show it. This happens most notably with “locked-in syndrome,” which can take hold after strokes.
Some patients in a vegetative state have, however, managed to communicate with the outside world. Owen has been a pioneer in this field, asking patients “Yes/No” questions and using a scanner to monitor activity in various areas of the brain to capture their answers.
Over the past 10 years, Owen’s research has transformed our understanding of these shadowlands of consciousness. Now, further research by Naci—who is mentored by Owen—has revealed just how sophisticated conscious awareness can be in a minimally conscious patient.
By showing a short film and measuring brain response (using an edited, eight-minute clip of Bang! You're Dead, a 1961 episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series), Naci has shown that the brain response of two patients in wakeful comas matched that of healthy control subjects.
Find out more about Owen and Naci’s groundbreaking research at www.bbc.com.