Unlocking Hidden Awareness: Repurposing fMRI to Detect Levels of Consciousness 

Alessia Caccamo, Gwyn Nolde, Halle Bakir, Lauren Ho, Marta C Alonso-Moreno, and Sadali Wanniarachchi



Determining the state of consciousness in patients with disorders of consciousness is a challenging task because for someone to be deemed conscious, both wakefulness and awareness are required. Awareness has traditionally been assessed by examining physical responsiveness but in 2010, Monti et al. explored how using fMRI to measure brain activity in humans could help reclassify the state of consciousness in these patients. The findings, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, show that some brain regions are active when patients respond to an imagery or communication task. This is a seminal study because it demonstrates that patients who behaviourally appear to be in a vegetative or minimally conscious state may still have residual brain functions that would not be apparent from a clinical examination alone. Notably, it exemplified how fMRI can be repurposed as a communication tool for this subset of aware, but ‘locked in’, patients who appear unresponsive. From an educator’s perspective, this paper is valuable because it is relevant to a broad audience, both introductory and advanced level undergraduate students. It introduces key concepts in cognitive and clinical neuroscience and encourages students to consider the connections between social issues and technology development in neuroscience. Finally, educators may use this paper to discuss and debate the nature of consciousness and the ethical implications that the use of fMRI for determining consciousness may have on medical ethics.