Woman in So-Called Vegetative State Responds to Commands, Stuns Docs

Bioethics   Steven Ertelt   Sep 8, 2006   |   9:00AM    WASHINGTON, DC

Woman in So-Called Vegetative State Responds to Commands, Stuns Docs Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt
LifeNews.com Editor
September 8
, 2006

London, England (LifeNews.com) — A 23 year-old British woman is supposedly in a so-called "vegetative state" after she was hurt in an automobile accident a yea ago. However, she has stunned doctors by responding to certain commands asked of her and the results have been displayed in brain imaging showing more is going on in her head than meets the eye.

Although the unnamed woman can’t move or speak, she has responded to sentences spoken to her and even played an imaginary game of tennis in her head, her doctors say.

The results have all been recorded on a brain scanner and show that disabled patients like Terri Schiavo or those who are comatose may be much more aware than they appear.

A team from the Medical Research Council’s cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge carried out the research and reported their results in the medical journal Science.

Their study showed that when the woman was asked to imagine herself playing tennis or walking through the rooms of her house, her neural responses were indistinguishable from those of healthy patients.

"Her decision to co-operate… represents a clear act of intention which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings," the researchers wrote in the Science article.

Adrian Owen, a Cambridge University scientist who led the study, wrote, "These are very exciting findings. This technique may allow us to identify which patients have some level of awareness."

Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liege and co-author of the study, says the study shows more care needs to be taken before killing patients like Terri by taking away their food and water.

"From cases in the UK and the US, we know that end-of-life decisions are extremely important and this will definitely change the way we deal with these patients," he said. "When you have signs of consciousness, you cannot decide to stop hydration and nutrition."

But Paul Matthews, professor of neurology at the University of Oxford, challenged the claims in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph newspaper.

"When patients are in a vegetative state they can react to stimuli but not in a truly meaningful way," he claimed. "Contrary to the claim of the authors, the observations do not establish either that the patient made a ‘decision to co-operate’ or that she had self-awareness. Response to stimuli does not provide evidence of a decision to respond."

The brain imaging study began five months after the woman’s accident. Although she emerged from the coma, she was declared by doctors to be in a vegetative state.

The tests were done to show various areas of the brain functioning when the woman thought about different topics. Remarkably, each area of the brain "lit up" in response to the questions, statements or commands — some the areas a health patient’s brain would be expected to come to life on hearing the same topics.