Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

What is it like to be unconscious? Perspectives from Philosophy and Neuroscience with special regards to Resignation Syndrome

Philosophy and neuroscience have a common interest – conceptualizing how the brain can give rise to the mind. Although significant progress in neuroscience has been accomplished pertaining to the characterization of brain functions linked to mental processes and even consciousness, philosophically challenging issues remain. Especially with respect to accounting for the first-person perspective or the what it is like-aspect of consciousness.

A clinical condition resembling Pervasive Refusal Syndrome (the Swedish diagnostic term translated into English is Resignation Syndrome (RS) rose in prevalence in an astounding manner in 2004-5 among asylum-seeking refugee adolescents in Sweden. Clinical symptoms persist for months to years leaving the patients in a seemingly unconscious state characterized by flaccid paralysis and a complete lack of response even to pain. Tube-feeing is necessary and no therapeutic intervention hasting recovery is known. Little is known of the biological background of the condition.

The study of RS is, with regards to its severity, duration and lack of treatment, paramount. Exhibiting altered states of consciousness and being hitherto unexplored from the perspective of neuroscience, these patients also provide an opportunity to study the biology of consciousness. Can such findings, and others from neuroscience, help us understand how consciousness and in particular the first person-perspective can arise in the brain.

Aims

Within the framework of the European Human Brain Project, this project will

  • Review recent development in the scientific explanations and description of consciousness with special focus on the conceptualization of the first person-perspective
  • Explore the concepts of understanding and explanation in scientific theories in particular in the setting of contemporary neuroscience
  • Explore the problem of other minds in relation to clinical settings involving Disorders of Consciousness, in particular RS, as well as to that of brain simulation
  • Characterize RS within a neurobiological framework by analysis of resting state-activity through the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)
  • Explore possible neurobiological correlates to the observed state of unconsciousness in RS
  • Relate findings from performed studies in the RS condition to the neurobiology of other conditions involving altered states and or contents of consciousness in order to contribute to a neurobiological account of consciousness

Funding

European Union Flagship: The Human Brain Project

Time table

2013-

Contact

Supervisors

  • Kathinka Evers, Professor of Philosophy
  • Predrag Petrovic, Psychiatrist, Associate Professor, Karolinska Institutet

Mentor

  • Hugo Lagercrantz, Senior Professor, Karolinska Institutet