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Athena Demertzi

Clinical Neuroscience

Coma Science Group, University of Liège, Belgium
Brain and Spine Institute, ICM, Paris

Athena is a researcher in cognitive and clinical neuroscience. Her aim is to comprehend the neural basis of consciousness and self-consciousness in health and in disease. She wishes to clinically translate her research by providing biomarkers to predict the diagnosis and prognosis of non-communicating patients. To that end, she has conducted behavioral and neuroimaging studies in physiological (hypnosis), pathological (brain injury) and pharmacological (anesthesia) conditions. As this type of research touches upon philosophical and ethical issues, she is deeply interested in the socio-ethical implications of our research findings. For that matter, she has conducted surveys with the goal to debrief opinions of healthcare professionals on the nature of consciousness, subjective experiences, and end-of-life options.
Athena graduated from the Faculty of Psychology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Greece, 2000-2005). Soon after, she pursued the Research Master’s in Cognitive Neuroscience, Neuropsychology, and Psychopathology, at Maastricht University (The Netherlands, 2005-2007). Next, she joined the Coma Science Group as a doctoral student and received her PhD in Medical Sciences from the University of Liège in 2012. Her postdoctoral research has been conducted at the Coma Science Group and at the Brain and Spine Institute (ICM, Paris) funded by the Belgian National Funds for Scientific Research (FNRS), the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the French Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM).


Measuring (un)conscious states: research, clinical applications and ethics
Consciousness is a multidimensional construct with no widely accepted definition. Especially in pathological conditions it is less clear what exactly is meant by unconsciousness, how it can be reliably observed or measured. When it comes to bedside detection of consciousness, this needs to be inferred via the evaluation of motor activity, with the aim to disentangle reflex from nonreflex behavior. Despite systematic assessments, behavioral evaluation is not straightforward due to patients’ physical and cognitive condition. As a result, the presence of consciousness can be underestimated. During the last two decades, the diagnosis of disorders of consciousness has been notably facilitated by means of technological modalities. Although most of such research has concerned patient groups, lately single-patient differentiation by means of automatic algorithms has been achieved. Here, I will show how functional neuroimaging has assisted patient diagnosis, how it can be potentially informative of clinical outcome and what these findings teach us about typical conscious states. As this type of research touches upon philosophical and ethical issues, I will discuss show the emerging neuro-ethical concerns stemming from the research of this challenging clinical population.