Recent research released by a team of Cambridge University scientists reveals that persistent vegetative state patients showed signs of conscious awareness in their brain wave activity. Patients who are in persistent vegetative states usually become so as a result of traumatic brain injury and appear unresponsive and unconscious physically to the world around them. But this newest research uncovers that these patients are indeed consciously aware to some degree of surrounding environmental activities, even though they cannot make their physical bodies signal a communicative response to the events going on around them.
Patients who are in a persistent vegetative state may be able to open their eyes and even look around the room. But the rest of their bodies do not respond to brain stimuli that is responsible for creating body movement. Persistent vegetative state patients can remain in this condition for many years, but it does not mean they are unconscious. In this latest research from the Cambridge team, the scientific researchers were able to chart specific areas of brainwave activity that lit up in response to external commands given to patients in a persistent vegetative state.
The Cambridge research team hooked up 32 patients to an electrode cap and recorded brain wave activity using an EEG machine. The researchers then hooked up healthy volunteers and recorded their brain wave activity as well. Persistent vegetative state patients showed similar signs of conscious awareness brain wave activity as the healthy volunteers.
The Cambridge researcher then decided to try an experiment where both healthy and vegetative patients were hooked up to an MRI machine and asked to imagine playing a game of tennis while the scientists recorded the patients’ brainwave patterns. Researchers discovered that the areas of the pre-motor cortex of the brain that plans body movements in the patients who were in the vegetative state lit up similarly to those of healthy patients who were asked to perform the same task. The results of both test studies were detailed in a report published in PLoS Computational Biology.
The preliminary data from these scientific experiments could assist scientific researchers on how to pinpoint exactly which persistent vegetative state patients are consciously aware of their environmental surroundings using EEG technology right next to their bedsides. Persistent vegetative state patients with neural brain networks intact would be show responsive to commands while hooked up to these machines. Those patients with damaged neural networks would prove unresponsive to external commands. Dr.Tristan Bekinschtein, from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the Department of Psychology, stated that a combination of both tests together would help immensely in the patient assessment.
The news of this latest scientific study shows tremendous progress towards improving clinical diagnoses for persistent vegetative state patients who show signs of awareness through their brain activity. It could also improve quality of care for these patients as better information regarding the state of the patients’ health is passed on to caregivers. However, the University of Cambridge research team cautions that more scientific testing and research still needs to be done before any practical application can be applied using this new data.
By Valerie Bordeau
Photo by: Alin S Living with Autism- Flickr