Don’t call people in a coma “vegetables.” That’s a dehumanizing figure of speech. And, as researchers have recently discovered, it isn’t necessarily an accurate description:
All the patients had the same terrible diagnosis: brain damage that marooned them in a “vegetative state” — alive but without any sense of awareness of themselves or the world around them.
But then an international team of scientists tried an ambitious experiment: By measuring electrical activity in the patients’ brains with a relatively simple technique, the researchers attempted to discern whether, in fact, they were conscious and able to communicate.
In most of the cases, there was nothing — no signs that any sentience lingered. But then one man, and another, and, surprisingly, a third repeatedly generated brain activity identical to that of healthy volunteers when they were asked to imagine two simple things: clenching a fist and wiggling their toes.
The findings, reported online Wednesday by the journal the Lancet, provide startling — and in some ways disturbing — new evidence confirming previous indications that a significant proportion of patients diagnosed as being vegetative may in fact be aware.
But, most important, the widely available, portable technology used in the research offers what could be the first practical way for doctors to identify and finally communicate with perhaps thousands of patients who may be languishing unnecessarily in isolation. Doctors could, for example, find out whether patients are in pain.
“You spend a week with one of these patients and at no point does it seem at all they know what you are saying when you are talking to them. Then you do this experiment and find it’s the exact opposite — they do know what’s going on,” said Damian Cruse, a postdoctoral neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario in Canada who helped conduct the research. “That’s quite a profound feeling.”
The results and similar findings could also provide crucial insights into human consciousness — one of the most perplexing scientific puzzles — and lead to ways to better provide diagnoses and possibly rehabilitate brain-injury patients, the researchers said.
“Can you imagine spending years without being able to interact with anyone around you?” Cruse said. “We can ask them what it’s like to be in this condition. Do they know where they are? Do they know who is around them? What do they need?’ This will lead to very profound implications.”
Other experts, while praising the research, cautioned that much more work is needed to confirm the findings and refine the technology.