SiNAPSA Neuroscience Conference '09
with Educational Workshop on Memory
September 26-29 2009, Ljubljana, Slovenia


Awareness in unresponsive states:
Is anybody there?

An interdisciplinary panel discussion with invited questions from the audience

The Event

Aimed at stimulating interdisciplinary communication and fostering the dialogue between scientists and society at large, this special event of the 3rd SiNAPSA Neuroscience Conference focuses on a subject that engages experts and lay people alike: consciousness.

An overview of the results and possible implications of recent functional neuroimaging studies of patients in behaviourally unresponsive states (e.g. persistent vegetative state) will be given by Adrian Owen from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, in Cambridge, UK. His findings and those of other scientists suggest that some level of awareness may be retained in a small number of behaviourally unresponsive patients. These findings raise several clinical, ethical and theoretical questions, which will be tackled in a discussion by a panel of experts representing different scientific and clinical disciplines dealing with consciousness: Adrian Owen (psychologist, neuroscientist), Urban Kordeš (physicist, phenomenologist), Olga Markič (philosopher, cognitive scientist), Igor Pribac (philosopher, bioethicist), Janez Ravnik (neurosurgeon, psychologist), Grega Repovš (psychologist, cognitive neuroscientist) and Jože Trontelj (neurologist, bioethicist).

The discussion will be moderated by Vid Vodušek (psychologist) and Sebastjan Vörös (philosopher).

The panellists will address the following issues:

  1. clinical aspect: the relevance of functional neuroimaging and electrophysiological studies for clinical practice when dealing with patients in vegetative and minimally conscious states;
  2. theoretical aspect: the impact of functional neuroimaging and electrophysiological studies on understanding of consciousness and/or awareness in neuroscience and beyond;
  3. ethical aspect: the ethical issues raised by neuroimaging studies.

As an event aimed at fostering dialogue between scientists and society at large the discussion will include questions from the audience, collected during the first half of the discussion.

The Panellists

Adrian Owen - Ph.D. Senior scientist in the prestigeous MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge and Deputy Director of the Wolfson Imaging Centre. His background is in Experimental Psychology, and his interests include neuroimaging (PET and fMRI) of frontal-lobe function and identifications of cognitive deficits in Parkinson's disease and related frontostriatal disorders. He is also interested in attention, and has applied his skills to a diverse range of fascinating topics, from assessing the impact of advertising on people to trying to understand whether there might be previously undetected cognitive function and awareness in patients in comatose or vegative states. Other interests include skydiving and rock'n'roll, with frequent appearances in the local and national media commenting on neuroscience and the paranormal to the public.

Jože Trontelj - M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Neurology at the Ljubljana Medical School. Author or co-author of over 150 journal papers, over 30 book chapters and 2 books, mainly on electromyography and physiological basis of neurological disorders; over 70 publications on bioethical issues. Since 1991, member of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, since 2002 its Vice-President, since 2008 its President. Since 1995, Chairman of the National Medical Ethics Committee of Slovenia and Slovenian delegate of the Steering Committee on Bioethics (CDBI) of the Council of Europe. Member of the Working Party that drafted the Additional Protocol to the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, on biomedical research.

Olga Markič - Ph.D. Associate professor of philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. She is currently teaching Logic, Philosophy of cognitive science, Analytic philosophy and Introduction to philosophy. Her main areas of research are in Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Cognitive Science and Neuroethics. She wrote (together with N. Miščević) an introduction to Philosophy of psychology "Fizično in psihično" and edited (together with J. Bregant) a collection of papers on mind-body problem and mental causation "Narava mentalnih pojavov". She is co-organizing a new master program in Cognitive science.

Igor Pribac - Ph.D. Graduated at the University of Ljubljana, where he later received a master degree and a Ph.D. in philosophy. He is currently lecturer on social philosophy and philosophy of history at the department of philosophy at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ljubljana. Within two years he will also start teaching bioethics. He is editor in chief of the Temeljna Dela series at the academic publishing house Krtina, where he supervised the translation of Peter Singer's Practical Ethics, John Harris' Value of Life and Paola Cavalieri Animal Question.

Urban Kordeš - Ph.D., B.Sci. in physics. One needs a mind to study the mind – was the realization that led Urban Kordeš to focus his attention from modelling artificial neural networks to dialogical study of lived human experience. Most of his papers as well as his book "From truth to trust" are trying to deal with consequences of a simple fact that in studying consciousness and related phenomena, one cannot get a full picture until his or her own participation in the researched phenomena is taken into account. In his experimental work, Kordeš focuses on lived human experience. He practices and teaches dialogical research as a means of systematic and open-ended inquiry of the subjective. He is a professor at the Universitiy of Lubljana, Slovenia, where he serves as a director of the Middle-European cognitive science study program. He is also a visiting professor at the University of Vienna and the Sigmud Freud University.

Janez Ravnik - M.D., B.A. in psychology. Currently working as a resident of neurosurgery at the University Medical Centre Ljubljana, partially working at the neurosurgical department at the University Medical Centre Maribor. Main research interest focused on cognitive dysfunctions after subarachnoid haemorrhage and severe brain injury.

Grega Repovš Psychologist by education and cognitive neuroscientist by heart, Grega Repovš is an assistant professor in Cognitive Psychology at the Department of Psychology, University of Ljubljana, where he teaches lab courses in Perception and Cognition and lectures about Cognitive neuroscience within Introduction to Psychology course. Collaborating with Institute for Clinical Neurophysiology and Neurology clinic at Clinical centre Ljubljana, his research interests are directed towards behavioral and EEG studies of attention, working memory, consciousness and language processing. He is also intensely involved in working memory and functional connectivity neuroimaging research in collaboration with Washington University in Saint Louis where he worked as a postdoctoral research fellow.


Additional resources

Owen, A.M, Coleman, M.R., Boly, M, Favis, M.H., Laureys, S., & Pickard, J.D. (2006). Detecting Awareness in the Vegetative State. Science, 313(5792), 1402-1404. [link]

Coleman, M.R, Rodd, J.M., Davis, M.H., Johnsrude, I.S., Menon, D.K., Pickard, J.D. & Owen, A.M. (2007). Do vegetative patients retain aspects of language comprehension? Evidence from fMRI. Brain, 130(10), 2494-2507. [link]

Tononi, G. & Koch, C. (2008). The neural corellates of consciousness: An update. Annual New York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 239-261. [link]

Tononi, G. (2004). An information integration theory of consciousness. BMC Neuroscience, 5(42). [link]

Schnakers, C., Vanhaudenhuyse, A., Giacino, J., Ventura, M., Boly, M., Majerus, S., Moonen, G. & Laureys, S. (2009). Diagnostic accuracy of the vegetative and minimally conscious state: Clinical consensus versus standardized neurobehavioral assessment. BMC Neurology, 9:35. [link]

Web pages
Adrian Owen homepage
Coma Science Group
Scientific Study of Consciousness

Last update: September 3rd 2009.

SiNAPSA 2003-2008 Some rights reserved