Researchers from Cambridge University in the UK have been able to communicate with brain-injured patients in “locked states” commonly referred to as persistent vegetative states (PVS). They predict such patients will soon be able to communicate and perhaps even move themselves around in motorized wheelchairs.
This is huge. I can’t imagine the frustration and futility of being locked inside my own body, unable to communicate or interact with others. But this new research is bringing hope to people who have suffered in this condition:
[Neuroscientist Dr. Adrian] Owen used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans to prove that one PVS victim could understand queries and give “yes” or “no” answers to simple questions. The 29-year-old male patient had suffered brain damage in a car accident in 2003, and had been in a coma for two years before entering a persistent vegetative state. He appeared to be awake and blinked occasionally, but otherwise showed no signs of awareness.
The team used the fMRI scanner to measure the patient’s brain response while asking him questions. Brain signals associated with “yes” and “no” are complex and quite similar, and to overcome this problem the researchers asked the patient to imagine playing tennis for “yes” and walking through his home for “no”. Tennis movements activate regions at the top of the brain associated with spatial activities, while moving around the home is a navigational task that activates areas in the base of the brain. Using this technique the patient was able to correctly answer six test questions.
I remember the scene in Lorenzo’s Oil where Susan Sarandon’s son, finally responding to the treatment she made for him, indicates that he wants her to stop reading the childrens-level story she had been reading to him for years. It didn’t occur to her that he had some level of awareness going on the entire time and had matured inside, even if he couldn’t express it.
Having the ability to communicate after having been denied it for so long – it’s amazing.