Unshelved by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum
comic strip overdue media

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Exploring human consciousness

Brains of vegetative patients show life
Of 54 unresponsive patients whose brains were scanned at medical centers in England and Belgium, those five appeared able, when prompted by researchers, to imagine themselves playing tennis, and four of them demonstrated the ability to imagine themselves walking through the rooms of their homes.

One of those patients -- a 22-year-old man who had been unresponsive for five years after an automobile crash -- went on to respond to a series of simple questions with brain activity that clearly indicated yes or no answers, researchers said.

Their work is the first to give physicians and families the prospect of a biological test to determine whether a patient who shows no response to his or her surroundings is conscious and aware of them.

That information, in turn, could bring comfort to families and better care to patients who are able to demonstrate their awareness and communicate their needs. For those consistently unable to respond, such tests may bring a measure of comfort to families inclined to end life support.
This study may make us reevaluate what it means to be alive and sentient. I wanted to know more about their methodology. Fortunately the paper is available online for free:

Willful Modulation of Brain Activity in Disorders of Consciousness

The article is pretty interesting. I have to admit I don't know much about the trustworthiness of functional MRIs for determining answers to test questions, but it sounds like this technique may at least help scientists understand the true status of those diagnosed in vegetative or minimally conscious states.

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