A woman who had suffered severe brain injury in a car accident and was in a vegetative state managed to communicate just by using her thoughts, say scientists from the UK and Belgium. They scanned her brain and discovered that she was able to understand verbal commands – she could even visualize herself playing tennis when verbally triggered to do so by the scientists.

You can read about this discovery in the journal Science.

The scientists could not say how common this ability might be among other patients who are diagnosed as being in a ‘vegetative state’. They added that she might be one in a million, as all vegetative patients are different and have damage to different parts of their brain.

FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) was used to record brain activity in the woman five months after her accident. Doctors had diagnosed her as being in a persistent vegetative state. When a person is in a persistent vegetative state he/she has lost cognitive neurological function and awareness of the environment, but keep non-cognitive neurological function and preserved sleep-wake cycle. In lay terms, it roughly means the person is technically alive but his/her brain is dead.

While mapping her brain the scientists asked her to visualize simple tasks.

Team leader Dr Adrian Owen, Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, UK said “The tasks we chose are based on many years of brain imaging research that shows different areas of the brain are activated when we perform different kinds of tasks.”

The scientists were startled to find that her brain patterns, when she was asked to imagine herself playing tennis or moving around her home, displayed the same activated cortical areas in a manner indistinguishable from that of the healthy volunteers.

Dr. Owen added, “It tells us the patient could understand speech, because of course, we asked her to do these things. It also tells us that she is able to perform simple tasks in her head, such as imagining certain scenarios. We see this as a proof of principle: we have found a way to show that a patient is aware when existing clinical methods have been unable to provide that information.”

“Detecting Awareness in the Vegetative State”
Adrian M. Owen, Martin R. Coleman, Melanie Boly, Matthew H. Davis, Steven Laureys, John D. Pickard
Science 8 September 2006:
Vol. 313. no. 5792, p. 1402
DOI: 10.1126/science.1130197
Click Here To View Abstract

Written by: Christian Nordqvist
Editor: Medical News Today