Breakthrough in Neuroscience

For those of you who have asked for a change of topic, here is an interesting article about an advance in neuroscience: a British physician apparently can communicate with a patient diagnosed as being brain-dead (persistent vegetative state) through an MRI system. (hat tip to Mark Shea.)

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 change in blood flow to certain parts of the man’s injured brain convinced Owen that patient 23 was conscious and able to communicate. It was the first time that anyone had exchanged information with someone in a vegetative state.

Patients in these states have emerged from a coma and seem awake. Some parts of their brains function, and they may be able to grind their teeth, grimace or make random eye movements. They also have sleep–wake cycles. But they show no awareness of their surroundings, and doctors have assumed that the parts of the brain needed for cognition, perception, memory and intention are fundamentally damaged. They are usually written off as lost.

Owen’s discovery, reported in 2010, caused a media furore. …

… Many researchers disagree with Owen’s contention that these individuals are conscious….

My comment:

As a science fiction writer, the implications have been explored many times in fiction, because we are discussing a possible system of mechanical telepathy. This could affect everything from jurisprudence (what if the system can form a reliable lie detector?) to cybernetics (what if the system could allow a patient to bypass damaged neural tissue and regain control of limbs and life?) The possibilities here are dizzying.

As a philosopher, I assume these are the researchers of the same caliber who earlier proved that men lack free will, because neurological studies show brain activity accompanies the reported awareness of a decision to move a finger.  The logical conclusion to draw is that ambiguous neuroscience makes for bad philosophy and worse theology.  My warning to experts is not to venture out of the field of your expertise without a warning to your audience, lest they give your words undue weight.

As a loyal son of the Catholic Church, my reaction to the article in general is less than moderate: In your face, culture of death! The science you worship instead of use now has some evidence that you are killing living souls in your grotesque love of euthanasia: and you call us backward and superstitious? We were here before you! You generation of vipers, you selfish bastards, how shall you escape the wrath to come?

When Terri Schiavo was killed in her bed by the state of Florida, and the press and the governor of the state stood by sitting on their hands, ignoring the weeping parents, and the culture of death celebrated in unseemly if not satanic glee, declaring that Schiavo had earned the privilege of starving to death, dying slowly by inches by dehydration.

The generation of vipers was too kind hearted to take a gun to her temple and shoot, as one would do to kill a mad dog or broken-legged horse, or kill her with lethal injection or electrocution as one would do with a condemned criminal, or slit her wrists. Instead, due to the legal nicety which somehow declared feeding and watering a sick person to be “extraordinary life support” we starved her to death.

Now comes this johnny-come-lately scientific evidence to support what the Church has always known: they you cannot write off a living human being “as good as dead” and play God, and grant death, without running an inhuman risk.

To the living patient unable to move or speak and convince her killers that she is still alive, this is a scene out of some Poe terror tale of premature burial. That the killers would decide to kill you slowly by inches, when you cannot even beg for death, merely adds horror to the terror, a grotesque irony, for which the perpetrators will have to pay and double again in purgatory or in hell, when the books of their deeds are opened and read aloud.


  1. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    Very interesting. And, as you’ve said, the idea, or variants thereof, has been used by SF writers. I’m reminded of stories by Poul Anderson like “The Long Remembering” and “The Fatal Fulfillment.” And I certainly agree with what you said how Cowan’s work vindicates the Catholic opposition to so called “euthanasia.”

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

    • Comment by Sean Michael:

      Oops! Adrian OWEN, not “Cowan.” Drat!

    • Comment by joetexx:

      Euthanasia (good death) is of course a euphemism, as are all common English terms for the practice, e.g. ‘mercy killing’.  the only honest term is just killing, or, in its legal dimension, murder. 

      • Comment by rlbell:

        The most frightening term that I have heard was therapeutic homocide, presumably for when the patient cannot ask to be euthanased.

        I used to sign the organ donor portion of my drivers’ license, but stopped when I found out that organ donations are best taken from live donors, so most donors are declared brain dead and the cause of their death is organ removal.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      It is too soon to say that Cowan’s work vindicates anything as yet. Experimental results are always somewhat tentative, and I for one would like to the results repeated reliably before any general conclusions are drawn. I remember the scandal surrounding the n-rays and the orgones and other bits of science that turned out to be observer bias.

      • Comment by joetexx:

        Yes, we need replication for any hard and fast conclusions. I remember all the excitement about ‘facilitated communication’ with autistic kids, and chimpanzee sign language. Neither of these, as I understand, really worked out as hoped.

        In any case the communicative abilities of vegetative patients are irrelevant to their human status. We already know that’s it wrong to kill them, even in the limited state of our knowledge.

  2. Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

    Time to put on your lawyer hat! This is small minded and petty of me, I know, but given that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to the Law, if this is repeated, validated, can we bring up the Judge and police involved in staving Terry to death up on Murder charges? It would seem an ideal Kickstarter project, one I would certainly contribute to (Even it it doesn’t go to court, those maggots desire a few sleepless nights, yes?).

    • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

      The existence of consciousness in one long-term coma patient (noting of course the usual caveats; there has been ‘communication’ with such patients before) does not demonstrate that it exists in them all. The brain is a very complicated object and can get damaged in lots of different ways that have the same external effects.

      • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

        So? If you are a hunter, and fire, and kill someone, we don’t let you slide because it “might” have been a deer. I am no lawyer, but I believe the law is quite clear, if you are not sure, you don’t take the shot. Again, it was the courts that set the precedent that ignorance is no excuse. What better Justice then to make them live by the standard they demand of us?

        • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

          Nu, but the question is whether what I hit was a human. If I am a hunter and shoot at a crashing noise in the forest, and the prosecution establishes that I certainly hit a mammal weighing between 100 and 1000 pounds but cannot prove that it was a human, then I think that’s reasonable doubt.

          • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

            DNA tests are cheap and easy. No, it’s is only the Left’s need to murder that has created a class of “human but allowed to be treated worse then cattle”. That is certainly tangled…..

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      No. It would be an ex post facto law. You cannot charge someone with something that was only later held to be a crime, and since it was done under the color of law, and within the scope of his official duties, he is no more liable than a policeman who shoots at a fleeing felon and strikes a bystander. Human justice cannot reach the murderers of Schiavo.

  3. Comment by joetexx:

    OT but there is cause to celebrate!

    Today is the 800th anniversary of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa! (July 16, 1212)

    Viva Cristo el Rey!

    Viva Santiago Matamoros!

    Viva Alfonso the Noble, warrior of the Cross, and confusion to the Almohad paynim!

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