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ScienceNOW: “Is there Anybody in There?” Can patients in vegetative states communicate with the outside world?
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reports encouraging progress on a novel way of communicating with unresponsive brain-injury patients. By asking a patient to imagine either playing tennis or walking through his home’s rooms, a patient can purportedly answer “yes” or “no” to questions.
A patient can purportedly answer “yes” or “no” to questions.
The project is a continuation of research we first reported on back in September 2006. Using MRI technology, scientists asked healthy patients to envision themselves playing tennis or at home. The brain scans revealed which (separate) mental regions became active while individuals imagined each activity.
A team led by Medical Research Council neuroscientist Adrian Owen used the method on 53 patients in vegetative or minimally conscious states. Of the 53, four patients showed “distinct patterns of brain activity during the tennis versus house imagination task, hinting at some level of awareness that could not be detected by observing their behavior.” The researchers asked one patient to use the technique to answer questions yes or no—with imagining tennis indicating “yes,” and imagining home indicating “no.” (Such a technique worked 100 percent of the time in a group of 16 healthy volunteers.) The patient correctly answered five questions about himself, such as the name of his father and whether he had siblings. The patient did not answer a sixth question, perhaps having fallen asleep.
Owen and his team’s success, even with only four of the 53 patients, strongly suggests what Christians already know: that patients in vegetative and minimally conscious states still deserve every dignity that humans deserve.
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