Patients in vegetative state can still recognize photos of loved ones

Thursday, January 02, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: vegetative state, photographs, recognition

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(NaturalNews) People who spend their lives in a vegetative state alternate between being awake and asleep, breathe on their own and otherwise engage in normative functions, with notable exceptions, of course.

They do not interact with or respond to things that are happening around them. They don't really exhibit much consciousness or awareness, and it is not possible for them to communicate - all of which leaves family and friends wondering if such patients even know if they are around.

But now, researchers have shown that vegetative patients do indeed exhibit some recognition ability, as reported by Science Daily:

Now, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Dr. Haggai Sharon and Dr. Yotam Pasternak of Tel Aviv University's Functional Brain Center and Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center have shown that the brains of patients in a vegetative state emotionally react to photographs of people they know personally as though they recognize them.

"We showed that patients in a vegetative state can react differently to different stimuli in the environment depending on their emotional value," said Dr. Sharon. "It's not a generic thing; it's personal and autobiographical. We engaged the person, the individual, inside the patient."

The researchers' findings, which have been published in PLOS ONE, have deepened understanding about patients locked in a vegetative state and could offer some hope for better care and the development of unique treatment options.

Science Daily reported that a team of researchers from TAU's School of Psychological Sciences, Department of Neurology and Sagol School of Neuroscience, and the Loewenstein Hospital in Ra'anana also contributed to the research.

For a number of years, scientists have speculated that vegetative patients have no self-awareness or awareness of their surrounding environment.

Recognizing loved ones

However, in recent years, scientists and doctors have used fMRI machines to gauge brain activity in vegetative patients. And, in doing so, research has found that some patients in those states are able to perform complex cognitive tasks on command, like imagining a physical activity (like playing tennis). In one case, a vegetative patient could even answer "yes" or "no" questions. Such cases are rare, though, and they don't really provide much indication as to whether patients are having real emotional experiences.

But the research is ongoing, as Science Daily reports:

To gain insight into "what it feels like to be in a vegetative state," the researchers worked with four patients in a persistent (defined as "month-long") or permanent (persisting for more than three months) vegetative state. They showed them photographs of people they did and did not personally know, then gauged the patients' reactions using fMRI, which measures blood flow in the brain to detect areas of neurological activity in real time. In response to all the photographs, a region specific to facial recognition was activated in the patients' brains, indicating that their brains had correctly identified that they were looking at faces.

In response to the photos of close family members and friends, though, brain regions involved in emotional significance and autobiographical data were also stimulated in the patients' brains. "In other words," the website said, "the patients reacted with activations of brain centers involved in processing emotion, as though they knew the people in the photographs."


The results of such stimuli and response suggest that some patients in vegetative states can actually register and categorize complex visual information while associating that information to memories - a huge and groundbreaking discovery.

Still, researchers were not sure if the patients were conscious of their emotions or if they were just responding autonomously. As such, researchers next verbally asked patients to imagine the faces of their parents. Astonishingly, one patient - a 60-year-old kindergarten teacher who had been struck by a car while crossing the street - exhibited complex brain activity in the part of the brain where facial recognition and emotional centers are located, a response identical to the brain activity of healthy people.

The scientists said her response is so far the strongest evidence yet that vegetative state patients can actually be "emotionally aware."

A second, 23-year-old patient, also exhibited emotion-center brain activity. What is significant about these two patients, however, is that they both woke up within a couple of months after the tests; neither remembered being in a vegetative state.

"This experiment, a first of its kind, demonstrates that some vegetative patients may not only possess emotional awareness of the environment but also experience emotional awareness driven by internal processes, such as images," said Sharon.


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