In movies, a loved one often consoles a brain-damaged patient by talking to them as if they are spatially aware. This is thought to be more about positive energy than actual communication, but new research has proven that at least some patients thought to be in a vegetative state are indeed still aware on some level.
Recently, Scott Routley, a brain-damaged Canadian man thought to be in a vegetative state for about 10 years, was able to give answers to direct questions like "Are you in pain?" to doctors via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). According to British neurologist Bryan Young, this kind of breakthrough will mean that the entire medical community will be forced to re-evaluate its approach to patients in a vegetative state.
Just a couple of years ago, scientists in the U.K. and Belgium conducted a series of tests using fMRI to communicate with several patients considered to be in a vegetative state. In a battery of tests involving 23 patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, the scientists were able to detect distinct brain activity in response to a request that they imagine playing tennis.
However, in the case of one patient from Belgium injured in a car accident and presumed to be in a vegetative state for nearly seven years, the scientists were able to conduct a rather extensive series of communications. The scientists asked the patient to imagine one particular physical action for "yes" and another physical action for "no." Using that baseline, the scientists were able to communicate with the man and confirm his awareness by testing his responses to his own biographical details.
And while these developments may give hope to those with loved ones currently hospitalized in a vegetative state, one particularly troubling question is: If these vegetative patients are still aware, what is it like to be motionless and unable to communicate for years on end while conscious of your living state? Is keeping patients alive in such a trapped, powerless existence humane? This new research will likely lead to new ethical and procedural questions surrounding the status of unresponsive patients being kept alive by way of medical equipment.
You can check out a brief BBC report addressing the new brain research developments in the video below.