Further evidence that vegetative patients can engage with the outside world

Cross-posted from BioEdge

New research from Cambridge University has confirmed that some patients in a vegetative state are aware of the external world. In the new study, a patient showed signs of attentive awareness that had not been detected before. He was able to focus on words signalled by the experimenters as auditory targets as successfully as healthy individuals.

The researchers tested 21 patients diagnosed as vegetative or minimally conscious and eight healthy volunteers with EEGs. Lead researcher Dr Srivas Chennu commented, “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.

The team also found that three other minimally conscious patients reacted to novel but irrelevant words, but were unable to selectively pay attention to a target word.

Dr Tristan Bekinschtein of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit is optimistic about the results: “These findings mean that, in certain cases of individuals who are vegetative, we might be able to enhance this ability and improve their level of communication with the outside world.”


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