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Brain imaging could unlock the minds of vegetative patients

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Brain imaging could unlock the minds of vegetative patients

For as many as 37,000 Americans who languish in hospital beds across the country unable to speak or respond purposefully to their loved ones, a study published this week may help reveal whether a meaningful mental life lies locked within.

And for patients who retain such cognitive function despite grievous brain injury and years of silence, the techniques described in the new research promise to pry open long-closed doors of communication.

In two patients diagnosed as minimally conscious and a third as vegetative, a Canadian research team detected evidence of an ability to attend to and follow commands. And in two of those patients - one of whom had evinced no glimmer of awareness for 12 years - the researchers found evidence of an ability to understand and respond to questions that suggested the patients were aware of themselves and their surroundings.

The authors of the study used a brain scanner that detects and pinpoints brain activation, and devised a series of exercises to reveal whether patients who had been unable to respond to physicians at the bedside were capable of purposeful mental activity.

Studies have suggested that as many as 40% of patients who are unresponsive are misdiagnosed. After a stroke, near-drowning, carbon monoxide poisoning or traumatic brain injury, many patients appear unaware of themselves or their surroundings and incapable of attention or purposeful movement. An estimated 9,000 to 37,000 Americans have been diagnosed as either vegetative or minimally conscious, leaving anguished loved ones to wonder whether there may be someone still "in there," but trapped in a broken body.

References and further information

This article was originally produced by the Los Angeles Times

 

To view the rest of the article visit the Los Angeles Times website  http://www.latimes.com/news/science/sciencenow/la-sci-vegetative-patients-communication-20130814,0,6697074.story

 

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