Sometimes a single patient can inspire a new line of investigation. In the Scientific American article “Is Anybody in There?” neuroscientist Adrian Owen of Western University in Ontario describes how his 1997 encounter with a patient named Kate led him to explore new ways to detect consciousness in patients who appear to be in a vegetative state.
Kate, a young schoolteacher, fell into a coma following a flulike illness. For weeks she lingered in what appeared to be a vegetative state: Her eyes were sometimes open but she was unresponsive to her family, doctors and environment. Owen, then at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues decided to see if she retained any cognitive activity by showing her pictures of friends and family as she lay in a positron emission tomography scanner. To their surprise she responded to the photos with brain activity that was very similar to the responses of healthy, alert individuals. This finding and Kate’s later reemergence into consciousness prompted Owen to develop new techniques—using functional magnetic resonance and electroencephalography—for detecting hidden consciousness in patients like Kate.
Kate, meanwhile, recovered enough to go home. Although severely disabled she has become an advocate for improved efforts to detect consciousness in patients who have been labeled “vegetative.” In the eight-minute video here, she tells her story: