Study Reveals Disabled Patients Like Terri Schiavo Show Awareness

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 8, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Study Reveals Disabled Patients Like Terri Schiavo Show Awareness Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
February 8, 2005

New York, NY ( — Disabled people who are treated as if they have no awareness of their surroundings or that they cannot interact with others may be absorbing more than previously thought, according to a new study. The research sheds more like on the plight of people like Terri Schiavo.

A team of neuroscientists in New York, New Jersey and Washington used imaging technology (MRIs) to compare the brain activity of two disabled people in conditions similar to Terri’s and the level of activity of health individuals.

As expected, the minimally conscious subjects showed brain activity at less than half the levels of the healthy subjects.

But, the researchers also made audio recordings of loved ones telling cherished stories or recalling shared experiences. In each of the brain-damaged patients while the recordings played, the level of neural activity matched that of the health patients.

"We assumed we would get some minimal response in these patients, but nothing like this," said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, an assistant professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan and the study’s lead author.

The findings, if repeated in other experiments, could have a significant impact on how the medical and legal community treat such patients.

Dr. Joseph Fins, chief of the medical ethics division of New York Presbyterian Hospital, told the New York Times, "This study gave me goose bumps, because it shows this possibility of this profound isolation, that these people are there, that they’ve been there all along, even though we’ve been treating them as if they’re not."

Since the completion of the study, researchers focused on seven additional disabled patients and the results were the same.

Three million to six million Americans live with the consequences of serious brain injuries and as many as 100,000 to 300,000 are like Terri Schiavo — minimally conscience and in a bedridden state. They are unable to care for themselves, but are still breathing on their own and may interacted in a limited manner.

The results of the study appeared Monday in the medical journal Neurology.