Unlocking the vegetative state

In a world first,  Canadian man who doctors believed was in a vegetative state for more than 10 years has told scientists that he is not in any pain. Scott Routley, of Ontario was severely brain damaged in a car accident. Ever since he has been completely unresponsive, unable to move a muscle and apparently unaware of his surroundings.

But a new test by a British scientist using fMRI scans seems to show that he is definitely aware. The researchers told him to imagine himself playing tennis if he meant no and to imagine himself walking through his home if he meant yes. Then they posed a momentous question: are you in pain? To their relief the portion of the brain involved in playing tennis lit up.

The astonishing result – which is still not peer-reviewed and published in an academic journal -- was screened on the BBC this week. If it is verified, it may be possible to communicate with apparently unresponsive patients. They could give directions for their care and comfort, and even about whether or not they want to continue to live.

Dr Adrian Owen, of the University of Western Ontario, the neuroscientist who examined Mr Routley, urges caution. “It’s not the case that all vegetative patients are conscious, by any means. Most of them probably are what they appear to be. But there are some who we are failing to detect… What you see is not always what you get.”

Other tests suggest that as many as one-fifth of all apparently vegetative patients may actually be capable of responding to the outside world. “It would be nice to know if there are abandoned people out there who are really aware, who could benefit from some stimulation,” said Dr Owen. “We probably owe it to people.” ~ National Post, Nov 13

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