A step forward for science – a step back for Britain's science sector

Cambridge team reveals potential breakthrough for brain-damaged patients – but lack of funding means they're moving to Canada

A leading neuroscientist who is about to leave Britain for a research post overseas revealed yesterday that he is on the brink of a breakthrough in communicating with people who inhabit the twilight zone between consciousness and unconsciousness, known as being in a vegetative state.

Dr Adrian Owen, of the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, said it was "inevitable" that "in the very near future" a means would be found of enabling people in a vegetative state to answer questions about their condition and express their needs.

But Britain is unlikely to enjoy the kudos of the advance, because the scientists at the forefront of the research are moving to Canada to join a multi-million dollar programme.

Dr Owen and between four and seven members of his team are taking up research posts at the University of Western Ontario under a 20m Canadian dollar (£13m) scheme, half funded by the Canadian government and half by the university.

Senior British scientists have highlighted the move in the context of warnings about an imminent "brain drain" as the Coalition Government prepares to make heavy cuts in science research spending.

But Dr Owen said Ontario had approached him more than a year ago, long before discussion of research funding cuts in the UK, and that it had been a case of "pull, not push". "Scientists move around all the time. I want to try and push things a bit further [in Canada]," he said.

Dr Owen and his team stunned the world earlier this year when they revealed they could read the minds of people in a vegetative state who had been thought to lack all awareness, using an advanced brain-scanner.

One patient, a 29-year-old man presumed to have been in a vegetative state for five years following a car accident, was able to communicate by thought alone, giving simple "yes" and "no" answers to questions. He had emerged from a coma after the accident, his eyes were open and he followed the normal sleep-wake cycle, but had shown no awareness of the environment around him and did not react to any visual, auditory or tactile stimuli.

Yet when researchers put him in the scanner using a technique known as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and instructed him to imagine playing a game of tennis for "yes" and walking through his home for "no", they found he was able to answer a set of six test questions correctly.

The drawback of the method, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), was that it took time to analyse his responses, so it was not possible to have a conversation in real time. Dr Owen said there was now an urgent need to develop cheaper, more portable means of making contact with such patients to find out what they were feeling and what their needs were.

Several thousand people are in a vegetative state in hospitals at any one time in Britain – cut off from contact with their family and carers. Dr Owen said he could not disclose details of his latest research in advance of its publication in a scientific journal, but it involved the use of EEG recordings of brain activity which, when analysed, could be used as a means of communication. "We are going to get to the position where someone [in a vegetative state] can communicate on a regular basis. It will likely involve a set of electrodes which they will wear on their head – an electrode cap – connected to a computer somewhere. It means we can bring it to the bedside and it will be relatively affordable: £20,000 to £30,000," he said.

Some scientists have criticised the research, on the grounds that a machine can be programmed to respond yes or no to questions, and the presence of the skill cannot be equated with the presence of consciousness. "We cannot be certain whether we are interacting with a sentient, much less a competent, person," the NEJM said in an editorial.

But Dr Owen dismissed the criticism, arguing that on such a basis it was possible to question the consciousness of anybody. "We are using brain imaging as a form of action. We ask the patients to activate their brain [by imagining a game of tennis] and when it is repeated over and over, it is convincing evidence that they are conscious," he said.

"We now have a moral responsibility to find ways of allowing them to express themselves. It is technically challenging – you can't put them in the fMRI scanner every time you want to find out if they are feeling pain. I think it is inevitable we will be able to use an EEG-based system before long. The fMRI will continue to be the main method for assessing patients but other technologies will be brought in."

Not all patients in a vegetative state were able to communicate their thoughts – only four out of 23 showed signs of responding in the New England Journal study. But for that minority there was now a prospect that they might one day play a role in decisions about their own welfare.

"I am quite sure that using the same sorts of imagery tasks, the technique will work with EEG recordings and it will work with 100 per cent reliability," Dr Owen said.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Web developer (C#, MVC4, HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, Jquery)

£30000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Senior Automation QA Engineer (Java, Selenium WebDriver, Agile)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Senior A...

Web developer (C#.NET, ASP.NET, MVC3/4, HTML5, CSS3, JAVASCRIPT

£35000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment