By Tom Spears
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Adrian Owen brings his Cambridge team to Canada

Neuroscientists Adrian Owen and Jessica GrahnLast February a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge announced that some people in a vegetative state are able to communicate. He asked one such man to imagine playing tennis when he wanted to answer ‘Yes’ to a question, and to think of his home for ‘No.’

The man’s face never flickered. Yet different areas of his brain “lit up” with activity under a brain scanner.

There you go, Adrian Owen told an astonished world: A man with no outward sign of consciousness is having a conversation. On New Year’s Day (2011), this world famous scientist starts a new job — at Western.
The news has startled Britain.

“Fears of a brain drain,” The Guardian’s headline warned.
“Why Canada?” Owen’s colleagues asked.
“It’s a funny question,” Owen said in an interview.

“This to me is a tremendous opportunity by any measure. The facilities for doing what I do, and the funding that the federal government and Ontario have put behind this, show a level of commitment that is just not available in this country (Britain). It’s actually a no-brainer move. I’ve been very surprised how surprised people are.”

Owen, 44, is one of 19 high-powered researchers recruited to Canadian universities in May as Canada Excellence Research Chairs. Each receives $10 million in federal funding over seven years. Owen himself gets a superb lab worth far more than the actual research grant. The Robarts Research Institute has brain scanners that stand out on the world stage, showing where and how a person’s brain is active. One is an immensely powerful functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine rated at 7 Tesla, which means it’s the highest powered fMRI suitable for human brains.

“Really nice machine. There are hardly any of them in the world,” Owen said. A second MRI scanner produces images in real time, allowing the scientist and the subject to respond to each other without delays, like two people having an ordinary conversation.

Ravi Menon, Western’s veteran fMRI researcher, is one of the people responsible for recruiting Owen.
“He’s a younger scientist who has definitely made a splash on the world stage already,” Menon said. And he brings the ability to take lessons from the lab, based on healthy people, and apply them to patients. “Everybody has noticed, all over the world, that Adrian Owen is going to the University of Western Ontario. That’s a statement for the country and a statement for the university.”
A whole neuroscience team is coming with him: faculty, technicians, postdocs, students. Owen knows Canada. He was a postdoc at the Montreal Neurological Institute from 1992 to 1996, and then moved to Cambridge. “It was certainly always an attractive option to me to move back to Canada,” he said. His range of fields — brain injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and others — all involve severe loss of brain function.

Now he’s raising the question of whether these patients have lost as much as people think. “The idea even 10 years ago that you can take a person who’s vegetative, put them in a brain scanner and make any sort of progress, any impact on that person’s life — it was really pretty inconceivable in this field. Most people think of these people as a dead loss, hardly worth the time of day,” he said.

“In fact we’ve made tremendous progress. We’ve shown that some of these patients are actually conscious, actually aware. We’ve even been able to communicate with some of them, to have a Yes-No conversation with a patient who cannot move, cannot blink an eye to answer a question. They can change their brain patterns to answer questions.
“This is pretty fundamental. If you’re stuck inside your head and you cannot even acknowledge to your loved ones that you are there, then being able to communicate in even a rudimentary way is a pretty major step forward.” His peering inside the mind also tells us about ourselves. “It can answer a lot of questions about ‘What is consciousness?’ That’s stuff philosophers have wrestled with for centuries.

“And I think that leads to foundations for looking for therapies, looking for ways to improve the lives of some of these patients in quite a radical way.”

At Western, he’ll study people with Alzheimer’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Patients with both diseases are assumed, in the late stages of the disease, to be unable to think or experience their surroundings.

One of the group coming with him is Jessica Grahn, a neuroscientist who is also his wife. Her lab and work are independent from his, focusing on the brain’s response to music. “She’s American. She’ll be close to her home now,” her husband notes.

Oh? Where’s that?


Grahn says that aft er a long stay at Cambridge (10 years for her, 15 for him), both wanted to move. “Western was perfect for us in many ways. They made excellent offers to both of us, and made it clear from the beginning that neuroscience was a priority research area. The infrastructure is spectacular, and the scientists equally so.”

The couple enjoys snowboarding, and even watched Olympic hockey.

“Don’t tell my folks,” Grahn says, “but Adrian supported the Canadian men’s hockey team in the U.S.-Canada game in the Olympics, so I think we’re on our way to adopting a new sport.”
* * *

Tom Spears is a science writer with the Ottawa Citizen and a member of its editorial board.















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