February 4, 2010

Technique Allows Vegetative Patients To Communicate

A study by British and Belgian researchers found that a man who had been presumed to be in a vegetative state for five years, can communicate "yes" and "no" using only his thought patterns, Reuters reported.

The researchers said the man sustained a severe traumatic brain injury in a traffic accident in 2003. He remained physically unresponsive and was presumed to be in a vegetative state for five years.

The study results, published in the authoritative New England Journal of Medicine, said that by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the patient's brain activity was mapped while he was asked to answer "yes" and "no" questions such as "Is your father's name Thomas?"

Dr. Adrian Owen, who headed the team from the Wolfson Brain Imaging Center in Cambridge, said they were astonished when they saw the results of the patient's scan.

"He was able to correctly answer the questions that were asked by simply changing his thoughts, which we then decoded using our fMRI technique," Owen explained.

Experts say the new technique is capable of decoding the brain's answers to such questions in healthy, non-vegetative, participants with 100 percent accuracy. However, it has never before been tried in a patient who cannot move or speak.

Some 23 patients diagnosed as vegetative were scanned in Cambridge and Liege during the three-year study and the new technique was able to detect signs of awareness in four of these cases.

But the researchers were only able to communicate, in the yes, no fashion, with one of the patients.

Dr. Steven Laureys of Liege University, who leads the Belgium team, said in the future they hope to develop the technique to allow some patients to express their feelings and thoughts, control their environment, and increase their quality of life.

"For example, patients who are aware, but cannot move or speak, could be asked if they are feeling any pain, allowing doctors to decide when painkillers should be administered," said Liege neuropsychologist Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse.

Laureys told AFP it was far-reaching research, but stressed that wider research and more tests on the unresponsive patients was required.

The researchers said they would now sit down with the multi-disciplinary medical community and legal experts to consider what they are going to do with this new information, which could have ramifications for such areas as assisted suicide.


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