Belgian coma patient communicated using thoughts
Scientists have reached into the world of a “lost” brain damaged patient and communicated with him via his thoughts.
The Belgian (29) was able to answer “yes” and “no” to questions by conjuring up imaginary scenes while having his brain scanned.
Before the extraordinary experiment the man, who suffered a severe head injury in a road accident in 2003, had shown no sign of being aware of the world.
Five years ago he was presumed to have slipped from a coma to a vegetative state, leaving his body functioning but his personality and consciousness wiped out.
The British and Belgian researchers now know that the diagnosis was wrong. The man was able to respond to questions about his life as scientists monitored activity in his brain. Last night they admitted to being “astonished” by the result, which has enormous implications for the treatment of vegetative patients.
The man was one of 23 patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state recruited for a three-year study by Medical Research Council (MRC) scientists in Cambridge and colleagues from the University of Liege in Belgium.
Its aim was to see if brain scans 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 patients imagined specific scenes. The scans use magnetic fields and radio waves to detect surges of blood flow with neural activity.
One Liege patient 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.
Dr Adrian Owen, whose team developed the technique at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, said: “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.”
The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.