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Coma patients

Research shows patients in vegetative states could be aware and paying attention

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 by: L.J. Devon, Staff Writer
Tags: coma patients, vegetative states, consciousness

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(NaturalNews) New, detailed brain measuring research suggests that patients in a vegetative state may actually be fully aware and paying attention, even though they cannot move or speak. Scientists at the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit from the University of Cambridge brought forth their findings in the scientific journal NeuroImage: Clinical.

Using electroencephalography (EEG), the researchers covered the scalps of 21 vegetative patients with non-invasive brain-reading electrodes. The researchers also tested eight healthy participants to compare brain responses. Electroencephalography, which records the electrical activity along the scalp, measures voltage fluctuations deriving from ionic current flows within the brain's neurons. In short, EEG records the brain's spontaneous electrical activity over a brief period of time, usually 20-40 minutes.

Vegetative patients responding to specific commands

Under the EEG testing, participants were audibly given a series of spontaneous words. For every second, a word was given. Words were simple, including words like "moss, moth, worm and toad," to name a few examples. These words were randomized and given in sessions lasting about 90 seconds each time. During the random word listening, "yes" and "no" commands were inserted and used about fifteen percent of the time.

Participants were asked to respond to the "yes" and "no" commands during the random word hearings.

30 minutes of word tests ensued for each patient, as the researchers deciphered whether the vegetative patients could attend to the correct target words, "yes" and "no." Other target words were used during the testing as well. The results of the tests were telling in one patient's EEG readings.

This vegetative patient elicited astounding results. This patient could effectively filter out unimportant information and focus on relevant words that the researchers assigned them to pay attention to. Digging further, the researchers used MRIs to reveal that this patient followed simple commands. One of the commands that the patient followed was "to play tennis." The brain readings showed positive responses to that activity as if the person was familiar with the command and wanted to act it out.

Scientists on track to help vegetative patients communicate with the world around them

The results of this particular study suggest that some vegetative patients are able to "direct attention to the sounds in the world around them," even though they cannot move or speak. In this understanding, scientists may be able to help vegetative patients communicate and respond to those around them.

University of Cambridge doctor Srivas Chennu says, "Not only did we find the patient had the ability to pay attention, we also found independent evidence of their ability to follow commands - information which could enable the development of future technology to help patients in a vegetative state communicate with the outside world."

Furthermore, the EEG readers showed that three patients reacted to the most irrelevant words but would not focus on the command words, suggesting these patients could possibly be responding with willful disobedience.

Dr. Chennu continues, "In order to try and assess the true level of brain function and awareness that survives in the vegetative and minimally conscious states, we are progressively building up a fuller picture of the sensory, perceptual and cognitive abilities in patients. This study has added a key piece to that puzzle, and provided a tremendous amount of insight into the ability of these patients to pay attention."

Building on research beginning in 1998, this study advances brain imaging techniques and diagnostic, prognostic tools which were originally put in place to establish a connection - that patients in a vegetative state may respond to "yes" and "no" questions through indications of patterns in brain activity.

The research is definitely a step forward in understanding through EEG readings how some vegetative patients respond to command words. In essence, these brains are fully aware and paying attention and can even interact.

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