Scientists find well-preserved neural “awareness” networks in some patients in so-called “vegetative state”

It is mindboggling that scientists use terminology that compares a living, breathing human being to a vegetable.  Surely a more descriptive term could be used, such as comatose or noncommunicative.  Terms such as minimally conscious and unresponsive are used in t he discussion but wrapped up in the “vegetative state” misnomer.  Surely the scientific community should be called to task for the use of such insulting terminology for a patient’s condition.

However, the important point here is that patients with severe brain injury may be aware of their surroundings even though they cannot communicate   There have been a number of reports of patients waking up from a “vegetative state” who reported having been aware of what was going on around them even though they could not move or communicate.

From University of Cambridge Research News:

Scientists find ‘hidden brain signatures’ of consciousness in vegetative state patients

  • Scientists find ‘hidden brain signatures’ of consciousness in vegetative state patients
Brain signals from healthy and vegetative state patients

Scientists in Cambridge have found hidden signatures in the brains of people in a vegetative state, which point to networks that could support consciousness even when a patient appears to be unconscious and unresponsive. The study could help doctors identify patients who are aware despite being unable to communicate.

There has been a great deal of interest recently in how much patients in a vegetative state following severe brain injury are aware of their surroundings. Although unable to move and respond, some of these patients are able to carry out tasks such as imagining playing a game of tennis. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures brain activity, researchers have previously been able to record activity in the pre-motor cortex, the part of the brain which deals with movement, in apparently unconscious patients asked to imagine playing tennis.Now, a team of researchers led by scientists at the University of Cambridge and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, have used high-density electroencephalographs (EEG) and a branch of mathematics known as ‘graph theory’ to study networks of activity in the brains of 32 patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious and compare them to healthy adults. The findings of the research are published today in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. The study was funded mainly by the Wellcome Trust, the National Institute of Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The researchers showed that the rich and diversely connected networks that support awareness in the healthy brain are typically – but importantly, not always – impaired in patients in a vegetative state. Some vegetative patients had well-preserved brain networks that look similar to those of healthy adults – these patients were those who had shown signs of hidden awareness by following commands such as imagining playing tennis. –


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