Some people thought to be in a vegetative state–a persistent lack of awareness following brain injury–may be more aware than previously thought, even able to communicate, according to new research. One patient in the study, published today in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), was able to correctly answer a series of yes or no questions, his responses interpreted via brain imaging.
The research highlights how difficult it can be to diagnose people in this condition and how new technologies may be able to help. It also opens new avenues for communicating with those thought to be lost to the waking world, and raises a host of ethical and philosophical questions over the definition of consciousness and how to assess it.
“In my view, this paper is a breakthrough in cognitive science and in neurology, and it will probably be the basis for a more open discussion of what it means to be awake, alert, and human,” says Allan Ropper, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who wrote a commentary accompanying the paper in the NEJM.
In 2006, Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Cambridge, England, and colleagues published a startling discovery. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, an indirect measure of brain activity, revealed that a patient who showed no outward signs of awareness several months after a car accident could mentally respond to a complex series of commands in much the same way a healthy person could. The new study builds on this research, showing that the previous case was not an isolated incident, and that brain imaging can actually be used to communicate with unresponsive patients.
These conditions, called disorders of consciousness, are often mistakenly referred to as comas. However, comas typically last just days or weeks. After that, patients either wake up or transition into a vegetative state (in which they are totally unaware of their environment) or a minimally conscious state (in which they may occasionally laugh or cry, reach for objects, or even respond to simple questions). Patients are typically diagnosed at the bedside via a series of neurological exams that assess their level of awareness of their environment.
In the current study, patients diagnosed as either vegetative or minimally conscious were asked to either imagine playing tennis–a motor task–or to imagine walking through the streets of a familiar city or their home–a spatial task. In healthy people, each of these tasks activates a characteristic part of the brain, allowing scientists to determine just from the brain scan which of the two situations the person is visualizing. The task is also cognitively complex: the patient must comprehend the command, remember it during the test, and then carry out the visualization.
The researchers found that five of 54 patients presumed to be in a vegetative state were able to willfully control their brain activity, suggesting that, while rare, some people with little or no outward signs of awareness have measureable signs of consciousness. All of those five had suffered brain damage as a result of head trauma rather than oxygen deprivation, confirming that this group has more promising prospects for recovery.
The team went on to show that in one patient, a 22-year-old man who had been diagnosed as vegetative after a car accident five years prior, this imagery task could be used to communicate. The patient was instructed to imagine playing tennis if the answer to a question was yes, and to imagine his house if the answer was no. He was able to answer five of six questions, and answered them all correctly. Scientists did not know the answer to the questions prior to the test, confirming them later with the patient’s mother. For the last question, rather than giving an incorrect answer, he showed no brain activity at all. Researchers say he might have fallen asleep, lapsed out of consciousness, or chosen not to answer.