Why Scientists Are Playing Nursery Rhymes for Babies While Scanning Their Brains

New research explores the limits of human consciousness and cognition.

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Sep 6 2016, 8:02pm

At some point, as each of us develops from being a tiny ball of cells to a functioning human, we "wake up" and become conscious. "We have absolutely no idea when or how consciousness emerges," neuroscientist Adrian Owen told me. "At some point, you have to accept that a zygote isn't conscious, but a [healthy] 10-year-old child is."

To better define human consciousness, Owen and other scientists are looking for it where many have long believed it doesn't exist, including among patients who are in a persistent vegetative state, and even comatose. New research is also trying to pinpoint when cognition emerges, by doing brain scans on babies and young children, even fetuses.

This research just got a major push forward. On Tuesday, Western University's BrainSCAN initiative received a $66 million infusion, which comes among many federal funding announcements for science and research this week. That money will allow Western "to extend this science in new directions," said Owen, the scientific director of BrainSCAN. "On a basic science level, it will allow us to start to understand how consciousness evolves."

Infant being put into an MRI brain scanner. Padding keeps the child from squirming too much inside the machine. Image: Rhodri Cusack

Today's research builds on a decade of findings from Owen, who's been exploring human consciousness in vegetative patients, a group that was long thought to lack any awareness: they typically have roving eye movements, and retain some basic reflexes, but won't respond when a doctor asks them to squeeze their hand, for example.

Owen has put some vegetative patients inside a brain scanner and played them Hitchcock films, to observe brain activity during the scary scenes. He's asked them to imagine doing specific tasks like playing tennis, enabling some to answer yes-and-no questions from inside an fMRI machine by activating certain targeted parts of their brains.

Most vegetative patients are not conscious, Owen will emphasize, and giving families false hope that their loved one might recover can be a dangerous thing. But Owen believes that as many as one-in-five who are diagnosed as "vegetative" could actually retain some level of consciousness that's undetectable by the methods that doctors traditionally use. He's been working on developing better ways to define this group, and help them communicate.

The British neuroscientist is also taking what he's learned by working with vegetative patients and applying it to other types of patients, like comatose people, playing them audio from a scene from the movie Taken as they lie inside a scanner. "Coma patients have their eyes closed, so showing them a movie doesn't work," he told me. "There's a great scene from Taken, with Liam Neeson, and it works like a charm." (It's a suspenseful scene in which the Neeson character's daughter is hiding from kidnappers, he told me.)

Scanning an infant from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Image: Rhodri Cusack

Western neuroscientist Rhodri Cusack, a frequent collaborator of Owen's, is spearheading the work on infant cognition. I gave Cusack a call to find out what baby brain scans show.

"We know so little about what's going on in a baby's brain," Cusack told me, partly because scientists and doctors can't directly ask babies about it. (The same could be said for vegetative patients, or those in a coma.) But understanding an infant's cognition is hugely important for a few reasons—not only to tell us when and how cognition develops, but to help diagnose certain brain injuries in babies and newborns. "Unlike an adult with mild brain damage, an infant can't tell you what they can't do," Owen said.

Cusack has been using neuroimaging to study babies' brain function, playing them lullabies like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Mary Had a Little Lamb inside a brain scanner. (Subjects need to stay very still for it to work properly, and babies are notoriously wiggly; so they'll often perform these studies while the babies are sleeping, he said.) They've also done a limited number of scans on fetuses, including Owen's son, who's a toddler now.

While it's too early to talk about results, Cusack said that brain scans on fetuses in utero are being developed as another avenue for research.

Cusack's work doesn't get directly at consciousness, he told me—he's interested in the emergence of cognition, a particular type of brain activity that comes in response to challenging tasks—but similar techniques could be used to pinpoint consciousness, too.

For Owen, pinning down the origins of human consciousness could eventually help scientists answer other questions, for example defining it in other species. "Nobody really knows what form consciousness takes in a chimpanzee," he said.

In the process, the work could get at "what makes us human," Owen said.

Image Above: Connections in the infant brain at age 1 mo., 3 mos., 11 mos., 7 yrs., 28 yrs. Rhodri Cusack

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