Thursday, February 04, 2010

I'm alive! 'Vegetative' patient speaks to scientists using his brainwaves

I'm alive! 'Vegetative' patient speaks to scientists using his brainwaves

SCIENTISTS have reached into the shuttered world of a "lost" brain-damaged patient and communicated with him via his thoughts.
The 29-year-old Belgian was able to answer "yes" and "no" to questions by conjuring up imaginary scenes while having his brain scanned.

The man was one of 23 patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state and recruited for a three-year study by Medical Research Council (MRC) scientists in Cambridge and colleagues from the University of Liège in Belgium.

Its aim was to see if brainscans could detect signs of awareness in patients who were thought to be closed off from the world.

Functional magnetic resonance scanning (fMRI) was used to measure activity in "motor" and "spatial" brain regions while the patients were asked to imagine specific scenes.

The scans use magnetic fields and radiowaves to detect surges of bloodflow that accompany neural activity.

For the "motor" task, patients were asked to imagine standing still on a tennis court and swinging an arm to return balls from an instructor. To activate the "spatial" region, they had to imagine navigating the streets of a familiar city or walking from room to room in their home.

In four cases, the scans were able to detect activity in the appropriate brain region as the patients carried out the scientists' verbal instructions.

But one Liège patient who had produced reliable responses was singled out for an even more remarkable test. He was asked to use "motor" or "spatial" imagery as "yes" and "no" answers to questions. The patient responded accurately to five out of six autobiographical questions posed by the scientists.

On one occasion he was asked "Is your father's name Alexander?" and correctly answered "Yes" by imagining the tennis scene. When he was asked "Is your father's name Thomas?", he answered "No" by thinking about roaming streets or walking around the house.

"Not only did these scans tell us that the patient was not in a vegetative state but, more importantly, for the first time in five years, it provided the patient with a way of communicating his thoughts to the outside world."

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