Back in 2010, neuroscientists confirmed that it was possible to communicate with some patients locked in a vegetative state by using an fMRI scanner. Though limited, the breakthrough suggested that more meaningful dialogue with patients in a coma could someday be possible. And now, two years later, it has finally happened. A Canadian man in a vegetative state has used his thoughts to tell scientists that he is not in any pain, marking the first time a patient in such a condition has relayed information relevant to their care.
Scott Routley was involved in a car accident 12 years ago and has been in an apparent vegetative state ever since. Previous medical assessments suggested that he was not experiencing any kind of awareness, nor was he capable of spontaneous movements or communication.
But as the fMRI scans now show, doctors should not judge a book by its cover; assessments of what constitutes a “vegetative” state have now been thrown into question. And indeed, efforts are already underway to help neuroscientists measure the level of awareness in comatose patients.
The communication breakthrough was achieved by Adrian Owen and his colleagues from Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute. Speaking to the BBC, Owen noted that, “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.”
Looking ahead, Owen is hoping to see clinicians use brain scanning techniques in similar cases to garner more meaningful information from patients. “In future we could ask what we could do to improve their quality of life,” he said. “It could be simple things like the entertainment we provide or the times of day they are washed and fed.”