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Consciousness Unbound: The Ethics of Neuroimaging After Severe Brain Injury


Severe brain injury is a major cause of disability and death. Patients who survive may emerge into a vegetative or minimally conscious state in which they are incapable of meaningful communication. Recent advances in neuroimaging cast a new light on behaviorally non-responsive patients after brain injury. Functional MRI is now being used in the research setting to map residual cognitive function in brain-injured patients, including the ability to process speech, comprehend language, and follow commands. In a few cases, neuroimaging has allowed for communication with otherwise unresponsive patients. This research raises difficult ethical issues: Should research results be shared with families? What does neuroimaging data tell us about our moral obligations to brain-injured patients? Can it provide clues as to the quality of their lives? Can neuroimaging communication be used to give patient a voice in medical decision-making? An innovative collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers at Western University is beginning to provide answers to these vexing questions. Panelists: Thomas I. Cochrane, MD Assistant Professor of Neurology Harvard Medical School Charles Weijer, MD, PhD Professor, Canada Research Chair in Bioethics Professor, Department of Philosophy, Medicine (joint) Western University Moderator: Spencer Hey, PhD Faculty, Harvard Center for Bioethics.

[Video and text source: HMS Center for Bioethics YouTube channel]