Patients in permanent vegetative state communicate using the power of thought

Have your say

Researchers at Cambridge University have found a way for patients in a permanent vegetative state to communicate with doctors without speaking.

•Researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect changes in the blood flow around the brain

• Doctors can work out answers to questions from the subsequent changes in blood flow

• Research proves that patients in a vegetative state have ‘a conscious, thinking mind’

Scott Routley, who was left severely brain damaged after a car crash more than a decade ago, has become the first patient to tell doctors that he is not in pain using the power of thought. Professor Adrian Owen pioneered the technique, which deduces answers to questions based on the changes of blood flow to the brain.

Patients are asked at first to imagine themselves playing tennis. This increases the blood-flow to the premotor cortex, located at the front of the brain.They are then asked to imagine themselves walking around their house, which stimulates blood-flow in the parahippocampal gyrus, located in the middle of the brain.

Patients are then asked a question, and told to imagine themselves playing tennis if the answer is no, and walking around the house if the answer is yes. Doctors are then able to deduce the patient’s answer based on the subsequent changes in their blood flow.

Using this technique, Scott was able to tell doctors that he was not in pain by imagining himself playing tennis.

Professor Owen said “Scott has been able to show he has a conscious, thinking mind”. It is hoped that doctors will be able to use this technique to improve the quality of care for patients who cannot verbally communicate.