As amazing as it sounds, communicating with a person in a vegetative state is no longer something we see in sci-fi movies, it is beginning to become a reality.
A vegetative state occurs when some patients come out of a come and wake up, but not with their minds, just their bodies. While they are able to breathe on their own and exhibit some reflexive behaviors, they are thought to be in a state where they cannot have any brain activity whatsoever: no thoughts or emotions. At least that’s what is currently believed to be true of the people in this condition.
Recent studies using EEG or fMRIhave lead some scientists to conclude that in some of the patients they studied, awareness was detected. And not only that, what is even more amazing is that the doctors succeeded in establishing a form of communication with these people – showing how they can answer yes or no questions.
Prof. Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario used fMRI to read the brain activity in several patients in this condition. How did he manage to instruct them to communicate back ?
Through technologies such as the fMRI, scientists are able to distinguish from different types of thoughts. In the case of these studies they used the ability to distinguish from what is referred to as spatial movement from the body movement-type brain activity. As such, for the first case, the patients were instructed to think of travelling through the streets of a familiar city or through their home and for the second type of activity they were told to think about playing tennis and hitting the ball back to an instructor.
By telling them to assign the first type of activity to a “no” answer and the second type to a “yes” – they were able to answer questions and thus capable of establishing a basic type of communication. This is an incredible breakthrough for the people in this condition and for their loved ones.
Besides the fMRI, Dr Owen managed to use the same strategy for communication by using EEG – a technology that is much more cheap and easy to use in comparison with the fMRI, thus potentially enabling a wide scale use of this method.
It’s true that this is not a miracle method yet – only 5 of the 54 patients that participated in this study were able to modulate their brain activity willfully at least as far as the fMRI could detect, but it still opens up an amazing opportunity.
Professor Julian Savulescu, the director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics stated that “This important scientific study raises more ethical questions than it answers. People who are deeply unconscious don’t suffer.
“But are these patients suffering? How bad is their life? Do they want to continue in that state? If they could express a desire, should it be respected?
“The important ethical question is not: are they conscious? It is: in what way are they conscious? Ethically, we need answers to that.”