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Brain Scans Let Vegetative Patients 'Talk' to Researchers

The debate over patients in a vegetative state is about to get much more complex. Back in November it was revealed that a man believed to incapable of hearing, feeling, or thinking was completely conscious for 23 years while hooked up to machines that kept him alive. That isolated incident might be more common than previously thought, and there is even a chance that, one day, vegetative patients may be able to "talk" via brain scans.

A new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, examined 54 patients; 23 in a vegetative state, meaning non-responsive but eyes open, while the other 31 were minimally conscious. The subjects were asked by the doctors to imagine two scenes, one in which they were playing tennis, and another in which they were walking down a familiar street or into a familiar room. The fMRI (Functional MRI) scans taken during these tests were then compared to scans taken from a fully healthy control group asked to picture the same scene.

The brain scans of five of the incapacitated patients (four of which were in a vegetative state) matched those of the healthy group indicating there was a level of consciousness. In fact, the scans were used to "talk" with one patient who was asked to imagine one scene for yes and another for no when posed simple questions.

It is worth noting that the findings do not apply to patients in a coma and only to those who had suffered a traumatic injury. Those in a vegetative state due to oxygen deprivation did not react to the testing. However, further research is needed, and for now performing fMRIs is both impractical and expensive.

The study, along with other recent events, is sure to spark urgency in those seeking guidance deciding whether or not to pull the plug on a loved one. [From: New England Journal of Medicine, via Discovery News]

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Tags: health, medicine, mri, science, top, vegetable, vegetative state, VegetativeState