Friday, September 08, 2006

Science vs. vegetative states

Intriguing new findings were published in Science today: a team at Cambridge studied the mental activity of a woman diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. Using fMRI imaging, they found that her brain processed spoken sentences and reacted just like normal people. For example, they asked her to imagine playing a game of tennis and, not only did the speech processing areas of the brain light up, but also the motor processing areas, indicating that she was think about a physical activity. The authors write:
These results confirm that, despite fulfilling
the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of vegetative
state, this patient retained the ability to under-
stand spoken commands and to respond to them
through her brain activity, rather than through
speech or movement. Moreover, her decision to
cooperate with the authors by imagining partic-
ular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear
act of intention, which confirmed beyond any
doubt that she was consciously aware of herself
and her surroundings.
It also opens the clear possibility of communicating with such patients ("if you want to answer yes, think about tennis, if you want to answer no, think about reading").

Since this study was on a single vegetative patient, it doesn't say anything about other similar patients. It does indicate that that there should be no enthusiastic rush to treat vegetative patients, like Terri Shiavo, as if they were already dead.

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