Consciousness Unbound

The Ethics of Neuroimaging After Severe Brain Injury

October 25, 2016
12:30-2 pm
TMEC 227 
Harvard Medical School
260 Longwood Ave
Boston, MA 02115

Severe brain injury is a major cause of disability and death. Patients who survive may emerge into a vegetative or minimally conscious state in which they are incapable of meaningful communication. Recent advances in neuroimaging cast a new light on behaviorally non-responsive patients after brain injury. Functional MRI is now being used in the research setting to map residual cognitive function in brain-injured patients, including the ability to process speech, comprehend language, and follow commands. In a few cases, neuroimaging has allowed for communication with otherwise unresponsive patients. This research raises difficult ethical issues:

  • Should research results be shared with families? 
  • What does neuroimaging data tell us about our moral obligations to brain-injured patients?
  • Can it provide clues as to the quality of their lives? 
  • Can neuroimaging communication be used to give patient a voice in medical decision-making?

An innovative collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers at Western University is beginning to provide answers to these vexing questions.


Thomas I. Cochrane, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurology
Harvard Medical School

Charles Weijer, MD, PhD
Professor, Canada Research Chair in Bioethics
Professor, Department of Philosophy, Medicine (joint)
Western University


Spencer Hey, PhD
Faculty, Harvard Center for Bioethics