Severe brain trauma from accident or injury can lead to patients ending up in a persistent vegetative state in hospital. The lights may be on, but often it seems that no one is home.
The patients are unresponsive and for all intents and purposes seem to lie there, locked out from the world. Families often feel that this isn’t the entire story. They sense that the person is still within and is aware to an extent of what is going on around them. Without any evidence of this, it is easy to dismiss this as just families wishing for something that isn’t there.
But now, a piece of pioneering research seems to offer hope where previously there was none. A team of scientists from Belgium and the UK have used FMRI imaging to monitor for brain activity in vegetative patients, in response to particular requests. For example when a patient is asked to imagine playing tennis, then the area of the brain responsible for motor functions lights up. When asked to imagine wandering around his home, then the part of the brain responsible for spatial awareness lights up.
The researchers were able to use both these distinct responses as a form of rudimentary communication with the patient. The patients were asked questions with a yes or no answer. Think of playing tennis for yes and walking around your home for no. It was a small study with only 23 patients, but the results showed that 1 in 5 patients who were previously thought to be vegetative, were not. They were capable of communication and were able to answer questions on their well-being and care. This groundbreaking research is in its infancy, but the outcomes and possibilities for the future of patient care are remarkable.