Vegetative Patient Communicates By 'Answering' Questions Using Attention

Scientists have found a way to connect with a patient who had been deemed unresponsive for 12 years with the aid of a brain imaging machine, according to a case study.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Neurology, detailed how three patients with severe brain injury who were considered non-responsive (one was even considered vegetative) were able to show that they could follow commands.

"For the first time, we showed that a patient clinically diagnosed as 'vegetative' can use his attention to show that he is conscious, and to communicate with the outside world," study researcher Lorina Naci, Ph.D., of the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario, said in a statement.

"Frequently, after a severe injury to the brain, patients lose their ability to make any physical responses. When we look at or talk to any such patient, we don't know whether they are conscious, can understand what is happening around them, or have any thoughts about their condition."

Naci further told NBC News that she hopes the research can be used to deduce which patients who are minimally conscious are in fact "trapped" in their bodies and do have some consciousness.

The study's three patients underwent fMRI brain imaging as their abilities to follow commands and communicate using focused attention were tested. Researchers found that all three of the patients were able to show that they could respond to commands, as they had more brain activation when they were instructed to count, versus when they were instructed to relax.

In addition, two of the three patients -- the vegetative patient and one of the minimally conscious patients -- were tested for their ability to respond to specific prompts, revealing an ability to use focused attention. Researchers found that these two patients accurately answered "yes" and "no" to questions such as "Are you in a supermarket?" and "Is your name Steven?"

In contrast to the ability of the patients to follow commands while inside the fMRI scanner, the researchers wrote in the study, "we observed extremely limited or a complete lack of behavioral responsively in repeated bedside assessments of these patients."

"These results suggest that some patients who are presumed to mostly or entirely lack cognitive abilities can have coherent thoughts about the environment that surrounds them," they added.

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