The Ethics of Neuroimaging After Severe Brain Injury
October 25, 2016
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.