A severely brain-damaged woman in an unresponsive, vegetative state
showed clear signs of conscious awareness on brain imaging tests,
researchers are reporting today, in a finding that could have
far-reaching consequences for how unconscious patients are cared for
In response to commands, the
patient’s brain flared with activity, lighting the same language and
planning regions that are active when healthy people hear the commands.
Previous studies had found similar activity in partly conscious
patients, who occasionally respond to commands, but never before in
someone who was totally
This opens up a whole new range of possibilities. For example, what if there was a way to fit a comatose patient with a brain activity sensor that could enable them to think of certain things in order to trigger things in their environment? For example, suppose that the woman above could think of playing tennis and that would cause the radio to turn on or off in her hospital room? Similarly, if she thought about moving around her house, suppose that could alert a nurse that she needed pain medication or to be repositioned, etc.? This could provide a way for comatose people to communicate with their caregivers and have some control over their environments. It might even be possible to teach them things to think about in order to indicate "yes" and "no" answers to questions. So someone could ask them questions about what they experience and they could answer yes or no. It might even be possible to teach them to communicate letters so they could spell out messages.
The whole premise that a comatose person has no conscious awareness or sensation may be overturned by this. Perhaps they are much more aware than we thought but they are simply unable to control their bodies in order to speak or move? If that is the case, they must be desperate for a way to communicate and this could be the answer.