Originally published April 17 2015
New research shows signs of consciousness in brain patterns of unconscious patients
by Jonathan Benson, staff writer
(NaturalNews) To hospital personnel and even close friends and family members, a physically non-responsive patient, or someone we might dub as "vegetative," may seem to be unconscious and completely unaware of what's happening around them. But new research out of the U.K. reveals signature brain patterns in many vegetative patients to suggest they're fully aware of their surroundings, and are duly capable of responding to questions and other stimuli inside their brains.
Though unable to move their bodies or respond audibly, some vegetative patients are fully capable of carrying out specific tasks cognitively, say researchers from the University of Cambridge. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brains of vegetative patients have previously showed that, in some cases, they're just as able as fully conscious individuals to imagine playing a game of tennis, for instance, exhibiting all the same brain patterns as healthy adults.
For the new research, scientists from Cambridge used another brain-scanning technique known as high-density electroencephalography, or EEG, to study the networks of activity in the brains of 32 patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious. This analysis method is based on a branch of mathematics known as "graph theory," and it's much cheaper and more efficient than fMRI.
Publishing their findings in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, the team observed that, remarkably, many "vegetative" patients are fully functional when it comes to cognitive capacity. In many of the patients studied, their brain networks were amazingly similar, or even undifferentiated, from the brain networks of healthy adults, as evidenced by their ability to follow commands and respond to external stimuli.
"Understanding how consciousness arises from the interactions between networks of brain regions is an elusive but fascinating scientific question," stated Dr. Srivas Chennu from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge about the findings.
"But for patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious, and their families, this is far more than just an academic question -- it takes on a very real significance. Our research could improve clinical assessment and help identify patients who might be covertly aware despite being uncommunicative."
The case against euthanasia: "Unconscious" people are actually conscious, suggests science Earlier research published in the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair hinted at this same phenomenon, documenting how some coma patients appear to recover faster when their close family members read them familiar stories while in their unconscious state. Hearing the voices of loved ones, it turns out, helps seemingly unconscious individuals regain consciousness more quickly.
The only way this would seem possible is if supposedly unconscious people are actually conscious, and we just don't know it. Just because a person can't use his motor skills to respond with words or physical motion doesn't mean he can't comprehend the sounds and activities taking place around him, in other words, reiterating the inherent value and dignity of "vegetative" human beings.
"Although there are limitations to how predictive our test would be used in isolation, combined with other tests it could help in the clinical assessment of patients," added Dr. Tristan Bekinschtein from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.
"If a patient's 'awareness' networks are intact, then we know that they are likely to be aware of what is going on around them. But unfortunately, they also suggest that vegetative patients with severely impaired networks at rest are unlikely to show any signs of consciousness."
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