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Neuroscientists Decode Vegetative State Experiences with Hitchcock Film

Researchers at Western University have extended their game-changing brain scanning techniques by showing that a short Alfred Hitchcock movie can be used to detect consciousness in vegetative state patients. The study included a Canadian participant who had been entirely unresponsive for 16 years, but is now known to be aware and able to follow the plot of movies.

Lorina Naci, a postdoctoral fellow from Western’s Brain and Mind Institute, and her Western colleagues, Rhodri Cusack, Mimma Anello, and Adrian Owen, reported their findings today in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), in a study titled, “A common neural code for similar conscious experiences in different individuals.”

While inside the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner at Western’s Centre for Functional and Metabolic Mapping, participants watched a highly engaging short film by Alfred Hitchcock. Movie viewing elicited a common pattern of synchronized brain activity. The long-time unresponsive participant’s brain response during the same movie strongly resembled that of the healthy participants, suggesting not only that he was consciously aware, but also that he understood the movie.

The image shows stills from Hitchcock movies.

Long time non-responsive patient shows brain activity resembling that of healthy individuals while watching a Hitchcock movie. Credit Lorina Naci.

“For the first time, we show that a patient with unknown levels of consciousness can monitor and analyze information from their environment, in the same way as healthy individuals,” says Naci, lead researcher on the new study. “We already know that up to one in five of these patients are misdiagnosed as being unconscious and this new technique may reveal that that number is even higher.”

Owen, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging, explains, “This approach can detect not only whether a patient is conscious, but also what that patient might be thinking. Thus, it has important practical and ethical implications for the patient’s standard of care and quality of life.”

The researchers hope that this novel method will enable better understanding of behaviorally unresponsive patients, who may be misdiagnosed as lacking consciousness.

Open Access Neuroscience Abstract

A common neural code for similar conscious experiences in different individuals

Although in our daily lives we engage in many of the same activities as others, we are not privy to their conscious experiences, and can only understand them through their self-reports. Patients who are conscious, but are unable to speak or exhibit willful behavior, are, therefore, unable to report their conscious experiences to others. Indeed, in most cases, it is impossible to know whether they are conscious or not. We introduce a neural index that, in a group of healthy participants, predicted each individual’s conscious experience. Moreover, this approach provided strong evidence for intact conscious experiences in a brain-injured patient who had remained behaviorally nonresponsive for 16 y. These findings have implications for understanding the common basis of human consciousness.

“A common neural code for similar conscious experiences in different individuals” by Lorina Naci, Rhodri Cusack, Mimma Anello, and Adrian M. Owen in PNAS, September 15 2014 doi:10.1073/pnas.1407007111


Western University neuroscientists decode vegetative state experiences with Hitchcock film

Notes about this neuroscience research

Contact: Jeff Renaud – Western University
Source: Western University press release
Image Source: The image is credited to Lorina Naci and is adapted from the Western University press release
Video Source: The video “Western University neuroscientists decode vegetative state experiences with Hitchcock film” is available at the Western University YouTube page
Original Research: Full open access research for “A common neural code for similar conscious experiences in different individuals” by Lorina Naci, Rhodri Cusack, Mimma Anello, and Adrian M. Owen in PNAS. Published online September 15 2014 doi:10.1073/pnas.1407007111

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