Patients in Persistent Vegetative State can communicate

Some years ago I wrote an article for The Wanderer about nutrition and hydration of patients in a persistent vegetative state.  I urge you to look at that article.  Also look at what the CDF has to say about care of these patients.

This BBC story is very important. There are two interesting videos on that BBC page.

Vegetative state patients can respond to questions
By Fergus Walsh
Medical correspondent, BBC News

Scientists have been able to reach into the mind of a brain-damaged man and communicate with his thoughts.

The research, carried out in the UK and Belgium, involved a new brain scanning method.

Awareness was detected in three other patients previously diagnosed as being in a vegetative state.

The study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that scans can detect signs of awareness in patients thought to be closed off from the world.

Patients in a vegetative state are awake, not in a coma, but have no awareness because of severe brain damage.

Scanning technique

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which shows brain activity in real time.

They asked patients and healthy volunteers to imagine playing tennis while they were being scanned.

In each of the volunteers this stimulated activity in the pre-motor cortex, part of the brain which deals with movement.

This also happened in four out of 23 of the patients presumed to be in a vegetative state.

The BBC’s Fergus Walsh tests the new brain scanning technique

I volunteered to test out the scanning technique.

I gave the scientists two women’s names, one of which was my mother’s.

I imagined playing tennis when they said the right name, and within a minute they had worked out her name.

They were also able to guess correctly whether I had children.


This is a continuation of research published three years ago, when the team used the same technique to establish initial contact with a patient diagnosed as vegetative.

But this time they went further.

With one patient – a Belgian man injured in a traffic accident seven years ago – they asked a series of questions.

He was able to communicate "yes" and "no" using just his thoughts.

The team told him to use "motor" imagery like a tennis match to indicate "yes" and "spatial" imagery like thinking about roaming the streets for a "no".

The patient responded accurately to five out of six autobiographical questions posed by the scientists.

For example, he confirmed that his father’s name was Alexander.

The study involved scientists from the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre in Cambridge and a Belgian team at the University of Liege.

Dr Adrian Owen from the MRC in Cambridge co-authored the report:

"We were astonished when we saw the results of the patient’s scan and that he was able to correctly answer the questions that were asked by simply changing his thoughts."

Dr Owen says this opens the way to involving such patients in their future treatment decisions: "You could ask if patients were in pain and if so prescribe painkillers and you could go on to ask them about their emotional state."

It does raise many ethical issues – for example – it is lawful to allow patients in a permanent vegetative state to die by withdrawing all treatment, but if a patient showed they could respond it would not be, even if they made it clear that was what they wanted.

The Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London is a leading assessment and treatment centre for adults with brain injuries.

Helen Gill, a consultant in low awareness state, welcomed the new research but cautioned that it was still early days for the research: "It’s very useful if you have a scan which can show some activity but you need a detailed sensory assessment as well.

"A lot of patients are slipping through the net and this adds another layer to ensure patients are assessed correctly."

She said the hospital did a study of 60 patients admitted with a diagnosis of vegetative state and 43% could communicate.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. wanda says:

    This was a topic on The World Over last night. The guest was Fr. Tad (I can’t spell his name)
    Poholchek (?) Fascinating talk about stem cell research, in argument that the only progress being made is by using Adult stem cells. This subject of awareness in those who are assumed to be in a vegitative state was also discussed. I believe this show will be repeated, not sure of the time.

  2. TNCath says:

    Too bad this didn’t come out during the Terri Schiavo debacle. The arguments for life are irrefutable. This is an important breakthrough.

  3. THREEHEARTS says:

    Christian Order, the British catholic magazine has several articles by Dr Gillian Craig on this subject. She picks apart the many conventions and panels who are counciling end of life homicide. An evangelical write Paul de Parrie in his book (middle chapters) gives a very succinct account of the early days (when the book was written) of the procedures (medical) that have been established and the names of politians who led the charge for the same procedures and the reasons they gave.

  4. THREEHEARTS says:

    Sorry the book is “The Unholy Sacrifices of the New Age”

  5. Justalurkingfool says:

    In terms of the holdouts in favor of late term abortions, I am curious to see if any practical fallout from this data, however it is ultimately applied to the elderly, becomes, clinically, applied to the brains of children awaiting gestational maturity, as evidence of their life.

  6. Where there is life, there is hope.
    Any life; God gives life, man doesn’t.
    This is most important in these days of starving/deyhydrating those in comatose or PVS (whatever this means, really.)
    The agents of the culture of death want any avenue or excuse to make death an answer to any human suffering or problem. That is frightening, indeed.

  7. Another horrifying thing about this is that these 25-30% of persons who were thought to be in a vegetative state were really staring straight up in bed for all of those years, aware, listening to the people around them discussing their fate – unable to communicate, unable to move. With the advances in certain technologies be it in fMRI, DTI or methods not even dreamed of now, I anticipate more confirmation of the Church’s teachings and further questioning of current methods and return to Church teachings.

    There is similar exciting line of research going on with the brain activity and structure of unborn children. But wait, this whole line of research assumes (correctly) that the brain activity and structure of the unborn child can reveal a great deal about the brains of the born. But why would we study the structures of these clumps of cells, resembling human persons and human brains, which certainly aren’t persons… What could this information tell us about brains I wonder? Could it be that these small persons are persons with small brains complete with structures of adult brains? Better not ask such questions, wouldn’t want to risk any grant funding.

    Eventually the research communities of academia will have to confront these obvious hypocrisies. That or slide further in the abyss of oblivion.

  8. The Cobbler says:

    I think they’re going to have to start making a distinction between a nonresponsive state and a vegitative state. A vegitative state by definition has no sensory experience. We’ve heretofor assumed nonresponsive states are vegitative. We’re discovering that was as idiotic as some of us said all along. Still, the distinction is going to have to be made as our medical readings advance, or we’re all going to waste time in arguing against euthanasia dealing with strawmen concerning the distinction.

  9. Hans says:

    I will be interested to see how much further play this story gets in the secular media, though it’s encouraging that it’s running in the BBC. That might give others the courage to do so.

  10. Gabriel Austin says:

    There is a simple scientific principle against the use of the term “vegetative” state. One species – or one kingdom – cannot cross over into another. Man is an animal; a carrot is a vegetable.

    I suspect the Death Faction chose the term “vegetative” to make it easier to terminate the life [aka kill] a person in a non-responsive state.

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