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British researcher to use EEG to determine consciousness

Brain researchers (from left) Dr. Damian Cruse, Beth Parkin MSC, and Dr. Adrian Owen at Cambridge University. Dr. Owen and his team will be researching recorded electrical impulses in the brain of comatose people showing they are actually aware and can respond by thinking of things.

Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail/randy quan The Globe and Mail

British researcher Adrian Owen is working on a way to assess patients who appear to be unconscious by measuring the electrical activity of their brains with an electroencephalograph, or EEG.

He says he is looking forward to collaborating with McMaster University's John Connolly, who pioneered the use of a modified EEG to assess whether patients in a vegetative state react to nonsense sentences like "the pizza was too hot to sing."

The first patient Dr. Connolly tested in 1994 had been stabbed through the skull with a foot-long knife and was unable to gesture or communicate. The test showed the 22-year-old could understand speech, and, after more than four months of therapy, he was able to walk, read, feed himself and play Nintendo.

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Dr. Owen is working on a different approach, one he hopes will allow patients to answer a yes-or-no question by counting the number of times they hear a particular word. For example, the word "green" would be repeated several times in a long list of random words. A second word, "pink," would also be repeated every 10 words or so.

Patients would be asked to count the number of times they hear "green" to indicate a Yes or to count the number of "pinks" for a No. The EEG would identify which colour the patient is counting.

How the brains of healthy volunteers respond to this task, as measured by an EEG, is well established. The next step, Dr. Owen says, is to see if it can help people in a vegetative state to communicate.

"It is a good turning point for us," he said. "Although we will still be doing a lot of functional magnetic resonance imaging, we will really be trying to capitalize on the EEG."

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About the Author

Anne McIlroy has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She joined the Globe in 1996, and has been the science reporter as well as the parliamentary bureau chief. She studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. More

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