Wednesday June 21, 2017

'It's still amazing to me': Neuroscientist on connecting with patients in vegetative states

Adrian Owen is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience and imaging at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University.

Adrian Owen is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience and imaging at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University. (Paul Mayne)

Listen 23:36

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As a neuroscientist working at Cambridge University, Adrian Owen became fascinated with patients in vegetative states — awake, but not aware and definitely not in comas. 

"These patients will open their eyes. They may appear to look around the room. They won't fixate on anything in particular," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Owen says the most important characteristic of patients in vegetative states is that they'll never respond to any form of external stimulation — if you try and attract their attention or get them to wiggle a finger or move a leg, they won't make any responses.

"So they are awake, but they appear to be entirely unaware of where they are, who they are and the situation that they're in." 

Through his professional work, Owen met a patient named Kate. After putting her into a brain scanner and showing her photos of her friends and family, he started to realize that she might actually be aware of her surroundings. 

"What was astonishing at the time was that the parts of her brain that we know are responsible for recognizing faces, lit up exactly as they would in a healthy, awake person," he recalls.

"But at that point, Kate looked to be entirely vegetative and entirely non-responsive."

'I've been doing this for many years now, and honestly I still find it astonishing that we're able to do this.' - Adrian Owen

Years later, Kate came out of her vegetative state. She was aware that something had changed: 

"She was able to describe what it was like to be treated just as a body — as she put it — to then later on be treated as a person, as she said, 'Well, I suddenly became a person again.'" 

Owen is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience and imaging at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University.  In his new book Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death, he describes how he has connected with patients in vegetative states.

In his conversation with Tremonti, he describes his work and explores some of the ethical implications that he continues to face.

"I've been doing this for many years now, and honestly I still find it astonishing that we're able to do this ... when we break through and make contact with a patient and we start to explore what it must be like to be in this situation," he says.

"It's still amazing to me."

Listen to their conversation at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.