Defining consciousness could change medicine 

By Barbara Black

Sean Reed started CEGEP looking for training for a job — any job — but now he has a mission. Magnifying glass

Sean Reed started CEGEP looking for training for a job — any job — but now he has a mission.

Sean Reed has a GPA of about 4.0. He just got $30,000 from the Quebec granting agency FRSQ and an additional $5,000 from McGill to pursue his master's. But he wasn’t always a good student.

“I almost failed in high school. My marks were quite poor,” he admitted. He started CEGEP in the pure and applied sciences program, but found it “pointless” and switched to commerce, where he did extremely well.

He entered Concordia in psychology, and when he took a required neuroscience course, he fell in love with the hard-science side of the discipline. Now he’s doing his master’s under physician-researcher Gilles Plourde at McGill’s Montreal Neurological Institute, and he plans to pursue his doctorate after that.

He’s studying how anesthetics affect the mind. That means defining consciousness.

“It’s only recently that we’ve looked at this,” he said. “Consciousness was a taboo word, because it was hard to define, and it was left to philosophy. Now we can quantify it through brain activity.”

Electrophysiologists attach electrodes to the brains of rats, do microsurgery on them and observe the results. This work has many implications, not least of which is to minimize the occurrence of anesthesia awareness.

In some cases (between one and two in 10,000 annually) patients are not rendered unconscious during surgery. They may feel pain or pressure and be unable to communicate because they have been given a relaxant. Some patients experience deep and lasting psychological distress as a result.

As a member of Concordia’s Science College, Reed was able to do research while he was still an undergraduate. Over those four years, he spent a lot of time in the electrophysiology lab of Associate Professor Andrew Chapman.

“He took me under his wing. The first year, I kind of pretended — I really didn’t know what I was doing — but he must have seen my potential. He had a lot of patience.”

Although he started CEGEP thinking he’d go into business to buy himself the things he wanted in life, Reed has different goals now.

“There aren’t many rich professors, but if you’re going to devote your life to a single goal, you should be good at it, and aim to change the world.”


Concordia University