(Reuters) – A man in a deeply unconscious state for five years has been able to communicate with doctors using just his thoughts in a study scientists say is a “game changer” for care of vegetative state patients. British and Belgian researchers used a brain scanner called functional magnetic resonance imaging to show the man, who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in 2003, was able to think yes or no answers to questions.
Experts say the result means all patients in coma-like states should be reassessed and it may change the way they are cared for in the future. After detecting signs of awareness, the doctors scanned the man's brain while he was asked to say yes or no to questions such as, “is your father's name Thomas?” The results showed that by changing his brain activity, the man communicated his answer.
“We were astonished when we saw the results of the patient's scan and that he was able to correctly answer the questions that were asked by simply changing his thoughts,” said Adrian Owen, co-author of the study from the Medical Research Council. “Not only did these scans tell us that the patient was not in a vegetative state but, more importantly, for the first time in five years it provided the patient with a way of communicating his thoughts to the outside world.”
The man, now 29 years old, was one of 23 patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state who were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The scans detected signs of awareness in four of the patients, the researchers wrote in their study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The fMRI method used can decipher the brain's answers to questions in healthy people with 100 percent accuracy, but it has never been tried before in patients unable to move or speak. Brain activation was detected in very few patients and only those with a traumatic injury, not in cases where the whole brain had been damaged by oxygen starvation.