Saturday, June 28, 2008

A vegetative state may not be so vegetative any more

I'm intrigued to read of a new method of communicating with brain-damaged persons, using brain scans.

BRAIN-scanning technology could allow doctors to read the intentions of patients who are unable to communicate via speech or gesture, with profound implications for emotionally charged debates about euthanasia and the way in which severely brain-damaged patients are treated.

The development was presented by British researchers at a meeting of the Organisation for Human Brain Mapping held in Melbourne recently.

Researchers used brain-imaging technology, called functional magnetic resonance imaging, to measure activity in different parts of the brains of 16 healthy subjects.

Each person was asked simple questions, such as whether they had any siblings.

To signal yes, they were instructed to imagine playing a game of tennis, which would activate a part of the brain called the premotor cortex, which governs limb movement. To signal no, they were instructed to imagine walking through a familiar environment, such as their home, which would activate a part of the brain called the parahippocampal gyrus, which handles spatial navigation.

By looking at which part of the subject's brain lit up in the image, the researchers were able to identify their answer. The researchers later confirmed with the subjects which answers they had intended to give, and found they had interpreted the answers accurately 100% of the time.

The research builds on a 2006 discovery in which it was found that a woman who sustained severe brain damage in a car accident was able to understand people talking to her and perform mental tasks despite showing no outward signs of awareness.

She had been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state.

I've witnessed people who've suffered brain damage through accident or stroke, and been unable to communicate normally. Some can move their eyes, or blink their eyelids, to signal a response, but some aren't even able to do that. It's heartbreaking to think that they might be fully aware of us, but unable to show it, and unable to communicate with their loved ones - and it's very difficult to talk with their relatives, and try to provide comfort in a situation of utter despair.

If this new approach can break through that communications barrier, it'll be a huge blessing.



SpeakerTweaker said...

I'm in. It only takes one to imagine being in a state where your loved ones are gathered around you, having been weeping for days or weeks, arguing amongst each other on how to proceed with your life, being aware of it, and being completely unable to communicate with them.

Honestly, I've actually wondered if this sort of thing was the case, where even though there were no signs of awareness at all, the sort of trapped syndrome was taking place.

Guess now I know. I hope this research pans out well.


phlegmfatale said...

I'm in, too.

I've always strongly felt that people in these states of limited voluntary movement might be still home, even if the lights are not on, and my goodness, how tremendously frustrating and despairing that state must be for them, indeed.

This sounds like a promising step forward, and I hope that this can be a great help to a lot folks and soon.