Adrian Owen: Brain Whisperer

He is almost universally hailed as a miracle worker; a scientist who can release minds trapped inside bodies on artificial life support and suspended in a vegetative state. By using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and an array of new techniques, Adrian Owen has detected and mapped brain activity in patients deemed completely unconscious.

Shown a Hitchcock movie, Jeff Tremblay’s brain lit up with activity. Mr Tremblay also reacted to sounds and images; in fact, his frontal and parietal lobes responded just as those of a fully conscious person. At the time of Dr Owen’s experiment, Mr Tremblay had been in a coma for a full fifteen years, victim of a brawl.

The British neuroscientist is convinced that not all vegetative patients are “braindead”. He describes his findings as a fascinating book, published last year. Into the Gray Zone begins with the well-known story of Cambridge nursery school teacher Kate Bainbridge who lapsed into a coma after suffering a bad cold that caused the inflammation of her brain and spinal cord. Though Ms Bainbridge’s coma lasted but a few weeks, she only slowly recovered her mental faculties. The ordeal, which the teacher remembers well and is now able to describe in minute detail, allowed neuroscientist a unique insight into the workings of the brain, its capacity to self-heal, and ability to function – though only partially – even when severely damaged.

The plight of Ms Bainbridge, and her surprising recovery, sparked Dr Owen’s interest in the twilight zone that separates life from death. The Cambridge teacher distinctly remembers feeling trapped as if locked in a prison without any clue of her surroundings – or the reasons for her predicament.

After examining numerous patients with severely reduced brain function, Dr Owen suffered a welcome epiphany – as he remembers, – whilst on a beach in Australia. In order to proof that a vegetative patient is mentally alive, Dr Owen decided that he would have to coax them into making a wilful decision and catch the resulting brainwave. To do this, he wired his patients up and asked them to imagine, say, a game of tennis or a walk around their home. In each case, a different part of the brain would show activity. Dr Owen had reached into deep inner space for now he could ask simple yes or no questions to be answered by thoughts of sports matches or strolls around the house.

Dr Owen gained almost instant fame when, in the presence of a BBC camera crew, he established communication with Scott who for twelve years lingered in a vegetative state. Hooked up to a scanner, Scott indicated that he was in no pain and proceeded to answer a host of questions. The patient knew where he was, who he was, and showed a clear notion of the passage of time.

“The first time this approach worked, it was like pure magic: we had actually found a lost person.” Since then, Dr Owen has unlocked the minds of many vegetative patients. The techniques he developed are now in wide use. Methods for assessing the mental state of patients in an apparently vegetative state have also improved significantly and currently use electroencephalography which is both less expensive and hardware-intensive. Patients may be examined for brain activity at their bedside.

However, establishing some form of rapport with trapped minds has not helped these patients regain their full faculties. Dr Owen admits that a trajectory towards full recovery is still “many years” away.

The British neuroscientist has also conducted ground-breaking research into the assessment of cognitive functions, developing innovative and comprehensive tests, available online, to scientifically determine memory, reasoning, planning, and attention skills and capabilities. In another large-scale experiment, Dr Owen also investigated the susceptibility of the brain to respond to specific training exercises that seek to extract peak performance. Whilst improvements were indeed measured and quantifiable, the acquired skills are non-transferable – only a single specific function may be bettered, with no detectable beneficial spillage to cognitively closely-related tasks. The brain, in a word, will not be trained.

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