World Science Festival in NYC

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Tickets for the World Science Festival in New York City go on sale to the general public today. The series of events will take place May 29-June 2, and will cover topics from many scientific fields. Of the neuroscience offerings, be sure to check out Dana grantee Nicholas Schiff and others in a discussion about consciousness, Nita Farahany’s talk about neuroscience and the law, and Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member James Watson’s lecture about his work on DNA and beyond.

For a complete list of events and to purchase tickets online, visit the World Science Festival’s website.

– Ann L. Whitman

Study shows brain activity in patients considered “vegetative,” but with caveats

Imaging research suggesting that some patients thought to be
in vegetative states are actually at least partially conscious has made
headlines the past couple days. Such work is fascinating but comes with many
caveats, as Nicholas Schiff and Joseph Fins, two experts who are quoted in some
coverage, wrote
Dec. 4
in a guest post on this blog, about a similar finding.

In the new study, which appears in the New England Journal of Medicine,
European researchers found that five patients out of 54 showed patterns of
brain activity in response to commands or questions from doctors.

Earlier
work
had shown that one patient expressed brain activity in motor regions
when told to think of hitting a tennis ball and activity in spatial regions
when told to think about being in her house. Now the researchers report taking
that remarkable finding a step further: They told a man to associate thoughts
of tennis with “yes” and thoughts of being in his house with “no.” Then they
asked him a series of yes-or-no questions and looked at images of his brain activity
to see if he answered correctly—which, they say, he did.

Articles by the New York Times,
the Washington
Post
and the Associated
Press
do a good job of pointing out some of the limitations of the
research. For example, all the patients studied had suffered traumatic brain
injury. There is no evidence that the finding would translate to different
kinds of patients, such as Terri Schiavo, who had long-term damage following a
severe lack of oxygen to the brain.

To the Times and
the Post, Fins also relays a
significant ethical concern about what being able to “communicate” with a
patient in a vegetative state might imply. Fins asks: What if the yes/no
question presented to the patient were not “Have you ever been to the U.S.,”
but rather, “Do you want to die?”

“We know they’re responding, but they may not understand the
question,” Fins tells the Times. “Their
answer might be ‘Yes, but’—and we haven’t given them the opportunity to say the
‘but.’ ”

Colin Blakemore, a professor of neuroscience at the
universities of Oxford and Warwick, goes a step further, using this new study
as a springboard to discuss,
in London’s Telegraph, just what
brain imaging can (and cannot) reveal, and what the implications are for
individual privacy. (Blakemore is also a member of the executive committee of
the Dana Alliance for Brain
Initiatives
.)

Clearly, neuroscientists and neuroethicists have plenty of
work ahead of them as they assess and build upon these stirring findings. Stay
tuned to the Dana Foundation, too—we are
working on assigning a Cerebrum article about the
misdiagnosis of minimally conscious states, which we plan to publish later this
year.

—Dan Gordon

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