Consciousness in the Persistent Vegetative State: Philosophical and Methodological Issues

Event date: 8 March 2008

Speakers: Adrian Owen (Senior Scientist, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge), Adam Zeman (Chair of Cognitive and Behavioural Neurology, Peninsula Medical School) and Steven Laureys (FNRS Senior Research Associate, Liège); Martin Davies (Wilde Professor of Mental Philosophy, Oxford). 

Venue:  Lecture Room, Philosophy Faculty, 10 Merton St, Oxford

Abstract: Complex ethical issues are raised by the persistent vegetative state condition, about the nature of consciousness, quality of life, and the value society attributes to life itself. This workshop focussed on the latest research in the area, including the recent findings of preserved consciousness in a patient with PVS. The workshop was sponsored by the Program on the Ethics of the New Biosciences.


The symposium brought together some of the world’s leading experts on the science of consciousness: Adrian Owen (Senior Scientist, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge), Adam Zeman (Chair of Cognitive and Behavioural Neurology, Peninsula Medical School) and Steven Laureys (FNRS Senior Research Associate, Liège). Adam Zeman, author of Consciousness: A User’s Guide and A Portrait of the Brain, introduced the symposium with a tour of consciousness and the current state of our knowledge of its neural underpinnings. Stephen Laureys presented some of his research on imaging consciousness and on locked-in syndrome. One interesting finding was on the well-being of patients in the locked-in state. The average level of reported well-being in these patients is not far below the average level reported by healthy controls (though there is much more variability in the patient group than in the controls). Adrian Owen talked about his by now well-known paper on imaging consciousness in the persistent vegetative state. He discussed why he chose the imaginative tasks as tests for the presence of consciousness, and how he now plans to extend this research. All going well, he hopes to be able to use the imagination task to communicate with some PVS patients. The day ended with a discussion session, led by Martin Davies (Wilde Professor of Mental Philosophy, Oxford). The scientists seem enthusiastic about discussing their work with people from a range of backgrounds, including ethics, philosophy and the sciences; all participants found the discussion stimulating and fruitful.

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