Doctors have managed to use brain scans to communicate with a patient who has been in a vegetative state for more than a decade — and he even told them he wasn't in pain.
The Canadian patient, Scott Routley, was asked questions while his brain was scanned using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The doctors we able to analyse his brain activity and discern how he responded to questions. Prof Adrian Owen, from the Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario, explained to the BBC:
"Scott has been able to show he has a conscious, thinking mind. We have scanned him several times and his pattern of brain activity shows he is clearly choosing to answer our questions. We believe he knows who and where he is."
In fact, during their communication with Scott, the researchers believe that he has confirmed that he is not in pain — which marks the first time an uncommunicative, severely brain-injured patient has been able to provide clinically relevant information to their carers.
The finding, reported by the BBC, flies in the face of accepted wisdom that vegetative patients — usually after coming out of a coma — have no perception of themselves or the outside world. Since the brain scan experiments, all usual tests used to confirm vegetative states still prove positive for Scott, meaning his condition hasn't changed.
In fact, that suggests that current tests don't perhaps realistically reflect the conditions of patients believed to be in a vegetative state. But more importantly, it opens up the possibility of better tests in the future — and unprecedented abilities to help patients that have until now seemed unreachable. [BBC]