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Vegetative patients can respond

4th February 2010

Scientists have been able to access the thoughts of a brain damaged man using a new scanning method.

Through work in the UK and Belgium, the team detected his thoughts, and awareness in three other patients previously diagnosed as being in a vegetative state.

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which shows brain activity in real time and asked patients and healthy volunteers to imagine playing tennis while they were being scanned.

In each of the volunteers this stimulated activity in the part of the brain which deals with movement but it also happened in four out of 23 patients presumed to be in a vegetative state.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, involved scientists from the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre in Cambridge and the University of Liege.

Dr Adrian Owen from the MRC, who co-authored the report, said: “We were astonished when we saw the results of the patient's scan and that he was able to correctly answer the questions that were asked by simply changing his thoughts.”

The discovery could open the way to involving vegetative patients in their future treatment decisions but also raises ethical issues such as if it is lawful to allow patients in a permanent vegetative state to die by withdrawing all treatment.

In the study, a Belgian man injured in a traffic accident seven years ago, was asked a series of questions and showed he was able to communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’ using just his thoughts.

 

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