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New Study Finds Awareness in Apparently Unresponsive Patients

A new study by scientists could change the standards in treating patients who have severe brain injuries and are considered to be in a vegetative state, according to experts.

Roughly 25,000 Americans are in an unresponsive state of living due to brain injuries. Although magnetic resonance imaging scanning has proved useful to detect responsive brain activity in the past, the new study used an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which picks up electrical brain activity through electrodes placed on the head, to detect signs of conscious awareness. It is the first to do so and can be relatively inexpensive.

According to the New York Times, 16 patients were subjected to the tests provided by a research team. During the study, the patients, who were in an apparently vegetative state, were given instructions and other tasks when they heard a beeping sound. When repeated 200 times, a 29-year-old, 35-year-old and 45-year-old showed an electrical flare in the area of the brain that plans and prepares movements.

Cases like that of a Florida woman who became unresponsive after her heart stopped have created controversy. After several years in an unresponsive state, her life support was turned off. In that case, doctors said the EEG would not have changed her diagnosis.

However, if the study is continuously successful, it could provide a way for the families of patients to discover if there could be signs of awareness. It could also provide a way of communicating with them.

The director of rehabilitation neuropsychology at Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital says although he believes the study should undergo further testing before it becomes routine, it does indicate there is a lot of consciousness in those “unresponsive” patients. He was not involved in the study’s research.

Source: New York Times, “Study finds awareness in 3 ‘vegetative’ patients,” Benedict Carey, Nov. 9, 2011

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