More than 12 years after a car crash left him in a vegetative state, unable to talk or otherwise communicate with those around him, Scott Routley has been able to tell researchers he is not experiencing any pain.
Researchers were able to record the 39-year-old's responses to "yes" and "no" questions by examining his brain activity while it was scanned by an fMRI machine.
"This was a landmark moment for us because for the first time, a patient can actually tell us information, important information about how they’re feeling and their current situation,” said Dr. Adrian Owen, the study's lead researcher at the University of Western Ontario, in Canada, to The National Post on Tuesday.
Because an fMRI cannot distinguish between a patient thinking the words "yes" or "no," Owens' team instructed Routley to think of one of two scenarios to indicate his answer. If he wished to answer "yes" to a question, Routley was asked to recall walking around his house. If he wanted to answer "no" instead, Routley thought of playing tennis.
"Scott has been able to show he has a conscious, thinking mind. We have scanned him several times and his pattern of brain activity shows he is clearly choosing to answer our questions. We believe he knows who and where he is." Added Owen to The Vancouver Sun.
Despite these clear indicators of mental awareness, however, Routley's outward physical ability has not changed. That is to say, he continues to fit the criteria of a person in a persistent vegetative state.
Professor Bryan Young, a colleague of Dr. Owens at University Hospital in London, tells The BBC these developments would require a re-writing of medical textbooks, because Routley's fMRI clearly shows he is not vegetative.
"I was impressed and amazed that he was able to show these cognitive responses. He had the clinical picture of a typical vegetative patient and showed no spontaneous movements that looked meaningful," said Young.
The BBC notes this is the first time a patient previously considered vegetative has responded to questions regarding the quality of their treatment.