The emergence of consciousness: Science and ethics

Semin Fetal Neonatal Med. 2014 Oct;19(5):300-5. doi: 10.1016/j.siny.2014.08.003. Epub 2014 Aug 24.


The newborn human infant is conscious at a minimal level. It is aware of its body, itself and to some extent of the outside world. It recognizes faces and vowels to which it has been exposed. It expresses emotions like joy. Functional magnetic resonance imaging of the newborn brain shows highest activity in the somatosensory, auditory, and visual cortex but less activity in association area and the prefrontal cortex as compared with adults. There is an incomplete default mode network which is assumed to be related to consciousness. Although the fetus reacts to pain, maternal speaking, etc., it is probably not aware of this due to the low oxygen level and sedation. Assuming that consciousness is mainly localized in the cortex, consciousness cannot emerge before 24 gestational weeks when the thalamocortical connections from the sense organs are established. Thus the limit of legal abortion at 22-24 weeks in many countries makes sense. It should also be possible to withdraw or withhold life-saving therapy of extremely preterm infants, especially if they are severely brain-damaged. This may also apply to full-term infants with grade III hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, who show no signs of consciousness.

Keywords: Consciousness; Fetal life; Newborn; Prematurity; Resting-state activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Induced / ethics
  • Brain / embryology*
  • Consciousness*
  • Female
  • Fetal Development*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Pregnancy