Thursday, November 5, 2015

A major advance in covert cognition detection

Both the left and center scans are of vegetative patients who were behaviorally identical. The scan on the right was of a healthy control.
Somewhat amusingly, I learned about a recent breakthrough in covert awareness detection using EEGs while I was researching a future post for the Secular Spectrum that will in part be about Eben Alexander (yes, him again). After all, I contend that he was simply experiencing a form of covert cognition during his NDE, much as I was.

In a related stories link within a typically sensationalist Daily Mail article about Alexander's story, I found an article that I initially dismissed--after a quick skim--as only being about Adrian Owen's tennis study and the Owen Lab's Hitchcock study, both of which I'm a intimately familiar with. But I'm a terrible skimmer, and it turns out that the article was really about a 2014 Cambridge study (the university where Dr. Owen conducted his famous tennis study) that had employed the tennis technique to test a method of using EEGs to map patterns of brain activity in vegetative patients. Using graph theory, they detected coordinated signals of brain activity, which indicated that the neuronal networks of the subset of patients who were covertly aware connected in similar patterns as the study's healthy controls. They were able to cross-reference their results with fMRI scans by asking the same patients to imagine playing tennis while having their brain activity measured by each form of scan. The same patients whose fMRI scans indicated that they were imagining playing tennis also showed the signature signs of that activity during their EEGs. The above image shows two vegetative patients on the left and in the center. The one on the right is a healthy control. As you can see, the one in the center is virtually identical to the one on the right.

This is what co-author of the study, Tristan Beckinschtein, said about the detection of covert cognition:
This data gives you a different way to think about what the patients can do. You can do the classic test to see if the patient is responding or not. But even if the patient shows nothing, you may see a well-informed information processing network using EEG. And if that is the case, regardless of any other test, the clinician can say, "This guy has the potential to process information. I don't know why he's not processing information, but maybe we can find out." And hopefully, knowing that capacity is there will make physicians keep their eyes open and less likely to write the patient off.
As my doctors did.

For those who aren't regular readers of my blog, I should point out that I received an EEG, which not surprisingly showed that my brain was functioning. Yet it couldn't detect my covert cognition. Eben Alexander hasn't released his medical records, but if he had his EEG would undoubtedly show that his brain was functioning, as well. If it hadn't been, that would mean that he was brain-dead, and he wouldn't have been able to write his two books about his near-death experience, just as I wouldn't be typing this sentence now.

Oh, and by the way, when I clicked on the link to the study, whose name do you think I read listed among the researchers? I'll give you a hint: it's an actual neuroscientist, instead of declared "scientist" who throws out everything we know about neuroscience. Yup, it was none other than our old friend, Dr. Adrian Owen. He's still working with Cambridge University, though he's now at Canada's Western University, ever striving for the advancement of covert cognition detection.

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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In July of 2013, I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died. When I awoke from the coma, I could barely lift my head. It has been a hard road to recovery. The doctors advised my loved ones to give up all hope for my full recovery, but while they were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of consciousness, I was telling them grumpily to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep...in my coma-dream. I was experiencing covert cognition, and the coma-dream was my version of a near-death experience. I'm a skeptic, so I saw surreal images instead of spirits or dead loved ones. According to my research, as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders have covert cognition.

Not a miracle recovery, but a miracle of modern medicine

In 2013 I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died after I contracted legionella. The Legionnaire's disease was in turn triggered by immunosuppression caused by the prednisone I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis.

I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain when the sepsis caused my blood pressure to plummet. I fell into a deep coma. My kidneys and lungs began to fail, as my body was began dying one organ at a time. My doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. They expected me to die, and even if I somehow lived, I would remain a vegetable or at best left so hopelessly brain-damaged that I would never be same. But unbeknownst to them, while they were shining lights in my eyes and shaking their heads, I was telling them in my coma-dream--my secular version of a near-death experience--to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep. I was experiencing what is known as covert cognition, the subject of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," which appeared in their July/August issue.

But it wasn't a miracle--despite what so many continue to believe--that I recovered so fully. I owe my life not to God, but the miracles of modern medicine, as well as the nature of the watershed-area brain damage I suffered, as I detailed in my article and in this blog.