Adrian Owen still gets animated when he talks about patient 23. The patient was only 24 years old when his life was devastated by a car accident. Alive but unresponsive, he had been languishing in what neurologists refer to as a vegetative state for five years, when Owen, a neuro-scientist then at the University of Cambridge, UK, and his colleagues at the University of Liège in Belgium, put him into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and started asking him questions.
Incredibly, he provided answers.
A challenging look at the definition of consciousness in those confined to a vegetative state. fMRI studies, for all their shortcomings, have recently challenged long-held notions about brain activity in otherwise unresponsive patients, but what does that mean about their “consciousness”? At what threshold does brain activity become “life”? There’s lots of controversy about how valid Owen’s studies are, but the story of Patient 23 will certainly make you think twice. A wonderful read.