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Famed neuroscientist explains his move to Canada

Dr. Adrian Owen, who has spent the past 20 years pioneering breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience, is leaving Cambridge University for the University of Western Ontario.

British neuroscientist Adrian Owen celebrated his 44th birthday Monday with a brain-shaped cake and what he calls his "best present ever" - a multimillion-dollar, long-term offer from Ottawa to fund his research and matching support from the University of Western Ontario. Prof. Owen plans to continue his work on patients who are in persistent vegetative states. In Britain, he found a way to communicate with some of these patients when they are in a brain imager by asking them to think specific kinds of thoughts if their answer to a question is yes and a different type of thought if the answer is no. He would like to find a way to help these kinds of patients communicate when they aren't in a scanner. He spoke with The Globe and Mail's Elizabeth Church.

Why are you coming to Canada?

I have been absolutely blown away by everything I've seen here - the level of support, the enthusiasm people have for making this work. It made me realize that it is going to be much easier to do this research here. I do multidisciplinary work that involves all sorts of different people - clinical and non-clinical scientists. It really requires a lot of infrastructure and a lot of people. That is what is on offer here.

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Who are you bringing with you?

I am bringing a number of post-docs and a research associate and a research assistant. All of them have worked with me on my brain injury program. They are very experienced with working with this group of patients. That will allow me to hit the ground running.

What does this give you that you don't have in Cambridge?

It is the infrastructure. There is a first-class imaging facility. That is very important in serious brain injury. You need to find out what has gone wrong. There is a tremendous breadth of expertise. Having that all together in one place is going to be enormously powerful. The seven-year time frame also is very unusual. Most of my colleagues back home can't quite believe it. On practical terms this is a major bonus. A lot of this research takes a lot of time. Having seven years of secure funding will allow us to make a major impact.

What will you do with the money?

I need to get all the right people into position. We will be bringing in new post-docs, engineers, psychologists, imaging people. My lab will grow as a result of this, setting up a program where we can bring patients from all around Canada who have sustained a severe brain injury. We will put them through a very thorough investigation. Then a major priority is to work on what we can do for patients who show they can communicate. How can we make something that is more portable and cheaper?

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