Study shows ‘vegetative’ patients can be aware, conscious

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor

A recent research study conducted by the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario has determined that some patients previously thought to be in a vegetative state are actually aware and conscious. A group of patients with severe brain damage (diagnosed as “vegetative”) was asked to perform simple activities, such as imagining a closed fist and other movements of their hands and toes. When comparing the patients’ brain activity to that of a healthy control group, the researchers discovered that roughly 20 percent of the group exhibited similar brain activity to the healthy group subjects — yet they were effectively paralyzed in every other way, unable to respond or communicate through other means.

This breakthrough result arrives in the wake of similar studies since 2006, which have used functional MRI scanning technology to scan similar patients’ neural activity. However, fMRI technology is exceedingly expensive, and the prohibitive costs traditionally make it a difficult option for hospitals to implement.

“What’s particularly exciting about the recent results is that they employed EEGs, which is a relatively inexpensive and widely available method for measuring brain activity,” said David Plaut, a professor of psychology and computer science at Carnegie Mellon, and a faculty member in Carnegie Mellon’s Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. EEG (electroencephalography) machines are a much cheaper alternative that can be implemented on a widespread scale. This changeover could be an important innovation in determining whether many “vegetative” patients still have some level of consciousness.

However, there are still challenges ahead. “On the one hand, it’s remarkable that some patients in what was thought to be a vegetative state are actually aware enough to follow simple instructions,” Plaut said. “On the other hand, there’s a tremendous amount of work yet to be done to understand the level of cognition and consciousness that these patients are capable of, and the extent to which emerging methods for decoding brain activity might allow for richer communication.”

The impacts on communication and quality of life for these patients could, in fact, be very significant. Previously unable to speak, move, or blink, they may now be able to speak with loved ones and answer simple yes or no questions, such as whether they’re in pain.

Health professionals will soon be able to use this technology to diagnose patients’ mental states, too; after being distanced from social interaction for so long, patients may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. This new technology has a lot of room for growth especially as brain-computer interface technology continues to improve, and it could spell out drastic improvements for those affected by neural impairment in the future.