Flemish scientist unlocks the secrets of the unconscious mind

Summary

Steven Laureys has won the Belgian Nobel Prize for science in recognition of his groundbreaking work on human consciousness and what goes on in the brains of people in a coma

All in the mind

“I’m not a miracle doctor,” says Steven Laureys, neurologist and coma expert at the University of Liège. But thanks to his breakthrough research into human consciousness, in particular among coma patients, the 48-year-old Flemish scientist has won this year’s Francqui Prize – known as the Belgian Nobel Prize for science.

Laureys, from Hoeilaart in Flemish Brabant, graduated as a medical doctor from the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and moved to Liège in the second half of the 1990s to study human consciousness. He now leads the Coma Science Group based at Liège’s university hospital, dealing with disorders of consciousness – primarily patients who have ended up in a coma after a head trauma or brain haemorrhage.

One of his team’s main discoveries is that about 40% of coma patients have a degree of consciousness. “It was a historic mistake to think there was only a state of consciousness and one of unconsciousness,” he says. “There are actually many degrees of consciousness.” He rejects the term “vegetative state” for coma patients, preferring to describe their state as “non-responsive”.

He has also contributed significantly to the detection of two consciousness networks in the brain: an external one that deals with the environment and an internal one focused on ourselves. “One part of the brain is responsible for the perception we get through our senses, another for that ‘voice’ in our head that summarises our thoughts,” he explains.

Inducing a reaction

But his work goes further than detection. With his team, he has also developed a technique to temporarily stimulate a coma patient’s consciousness. For this treatment, patients receive mild electric waves through their brain, via electrodes on their skull. It enables a large number of patients to follow movements with their eyes or answer simple questions for about two hours.

There are currently clinical trials taking place with hundreds of patients, who are given electric brain stimulation for about 20 minutes a day over several weeks. This will help scientists understand how brain networks become active again after they are damaged. It could also become a way to assess the condition and treatment of patients and possibly the basis for new treatments.

We have made huge progress in helping people with hearing and visual impairments, but the working of the consciousness still holds so many mysteries

- Steven Laureys

Such findings have resulted in global renown for the Coma Science Group. Each week, the team studies the precise mental condition of a coma patient from outside the hospital – often from abroad. As well as external patients, the researchers focus on the many patients in the hospital with disorders of consciousness.

“Many coma patients still experience pain and emotions,” says Laureys (pictured above receiving his award). “For their comfort and to give them the best chance of recovery, it’s essential that we can induce reactions in the brain and establish a kind of communication.”

The researchers will use a variety of imaging methods to measure the reactions in the brain when certain body parts are hurt in a controlled manner. They also try to induce emotional reactions in the brain by calling a patient by their name, holding a mirror in front of their eyes or letting them listen to music.

Life and death

Despite this, in many cases, the conclusion is that there is no hope of recovery for the patient. The team then has to confer with the next of kin about the question of allowing the patient to die. As this concerns matters of life and death, the team is at the centre of an ethical and legal discussion, often attacked by both the pro-life Christian movement and atheists who want people to have the right to die.

“What matters to us is a patient’s quality of life,” says Laureys. “We want to conduct this complicated debate on the basis of our scientific evidence and use nuanced arguments.”

Laureys’ work on the human consciousness, however, goes beyond the situation of coma patients. He also examines things such as the influence of meditation skills on the brains of Buddhist monks, and of weightlessness on those of astronauts.

He studies the nature of near-death experiences, too, and his team has collected about 1,500 testimonies from people from around the world. Laureys has even carried out experiments on himself. He was given psychedelic mushrooms intravenously and used a centrifuge at a military base in Warsaw where pilots experience the effects of extreme gravity.

“We have already made huge progress in helping people with hearing and visual impairments, for example, but the working of the consciousness still holds so many mysteries,” he says. “We have to explore diverse ways to collect scientific evidence.”

Laureys was presented with the Francqui Prize in May at the Academy Palace in Brussels by King Filip. The prize, granted to scientists up to the age of 50, is worth €250,000.

Photo: Virginie Lefour/Belga