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Vegetative patients still able to learn

21st September 2009

A study by researchers at Cambridge University has found that patients who are unconscious and severely brain damaged can still show signs of being capable of learning.

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In the study, scientists played a sound to patients who were in a vegetative state before puffing air on their eyes. Up to 70 puffs of air were given during a 25 minute session.

Some of the patients demonstrated the ability to anticipate the air puff, which was shown by their eye muscles twitching and picked up by electrodes.

The study's head Dr Tristan Bekinschtein said the generally held belief was that in order to learn how to make a connection, a person needed to be aware of the link between two stimuli. 

However the study revealed that the ability to learn to form this connection existed in patients who were not conscious.

"They were clearly anticipating the stimulus would come, so there is some kind of perception and from the point of view of the patient who is allegedly unconscious this could have profound implications," Dr Bekinschtein said.

When the researchers performed the same experiment on patients who had been given a general anaesthetic, they did not show the same responses.

"This is potentially a test that could be used to test the consciousness of the patient. Interestingly about 80% of those who showed learning had some improvement so it gives us some confidence that we can predict those who will show some level of recovery," Dr Bekinschtein added.

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