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Vegetative patients may talk using brain waves

Many of the patients were labelled with the same grim diagnosis: “vegetative state.”

world Updated: Feb 05, 2010 00:23 IST

Many of the patients were labelled with the same grim diagnosis: “vegetative state.”

Their head injuries, teams of specialists had concluded, condemned them to a netherworld — alive yet utterly devoid of any awareness of the world around them.

But an international team of scientists decided to try a bold experiment using the latest technology to peek inside their minds to see whether, in fact, they were conscious.

One by one, the men and women were placed inside advanced brain scanners as technicians gave them careful instructions: Imagine you are playing tennis. Imagine you are exploring your home, room by room.

For most, the scanner showed nothing.

But, shockingly, for one, then another, and another, and yet two more, the scans flashed alive exactly like any healthy conscious person’s would.

These patients, the images clearly showed, were living silently in their bodies — their minds apparently active. One man could even flawlessly answer detailed yes-or-no questions about his life before his trauma.

“It was incredible,” said Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge who led the ground-breaking research said. “These are patients who are totally unable to perform functions with their bodies — even blink an eye or move an eyebrow — but yet are entirely conscious. It’s quite distressing, really, to realise this.”

While stressing that much more research is needed to confirm findings and refine the technology, Owen and other experts said the findings could provide profound insights into human consciousness — one of the most daunting scientific mysteries, and lead to ways to better diagnose and treat tens of thousands of brain injury patients.

The technology also offers the tantalising possibility of being able to finally communicate with some patients and ask, at the very least, whether they are in pain and need relief.

As many as 20,000 Americans are in a vegetative state — meaning they are alive and awake, but without any sense of awareness, while 100,000 to 300,000 are in a related condition known as a minimally conscious state, in which they exhibit impaired or intermittent awareness.

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