Breakthrough gives hope to families of vegetative patients

A new approach to scanning the brains of vegetative patients may help physicians determine which patients are conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious. When patients are in comas or vegetative states, it may be difficult to tell if their injuries have rendered them completely unconscious or in a state of semi-consciousness. However, a newly released research study out of Canada indicates that specialized MRI scans may reveal just how conscious or unconscious patients truly are.

This news is providing hope for families of coma patients with traumatic brain injuries. Understanding whether or not their loved one is somewhat conscious or completely unconscious may help them determine how to proceed with their loved one’s care plan.

The Canadian study is nothing less than shocking. Of those patients tested with functional magnetic resonance imaging, three patients in comas or persistent vegetative states were able to answer simple questions “yes” or “no.” One patient who had spent 12 years in a vegetative state indicated that he knew both where he was and what his name is.

One brain imaging researcher explained that the goal of the research is that, “We hope to be able to reach patients who are trapped in their bodies. We want to give patients some autonomy in their lives.”

It may not always be possible to determine with certainty whether or not a patient in a vegetative state is semi-conscious. But the Canadian study proves that new brain imaging techniques can allow physicians to communicate with some conscious and semi-conscious coma patients. This breakthrough will almost certainly lead to an increased focus on innovation in this field, as well as proper diagnosis, treatment and communication with vegetative patients.

Source: NBC News, “Brain scans reveal which ‘vegetative’ patients are alert, trapped in bodies,” Maggie Fox, Aug. 15, 2013

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