New fMRI study: woman in vegetative state might be conscious

September 24, 2007 | By | 1 Reply More

Salon.com has published an article (“The light’s on, but is anybody home?”) on a new study that claims that scientists are able to determine (based on fMRI studies) that a woman who has been diagnosed to be in a vegetative state for two years appears to be conscious.

In a recent article in the Archives of Neurology, a team of British and Belgian neuroscientists describe a clinically unconscious accident victim who can, on command, imagine herself playing tennis and walking around her house. By showing that her functional brain imaging studies (fMRI) are indistinguishable from those of healthy volunteers performing the same mental tasks, the researchers claim that the young woman’s fMRI “confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings, and was willfully following instructions given to her, despite her diagnosis of a vegetative state.”

Their extraordinary conclusions are beyond provocative; they raise profound questions about the very notion of consciousness. What’s more, they could throw thousands of families and doctors into utter turmoil.

The experiment is both clever and provocative.  The experimenters asked the (apparently vegetative) patient to imagine engaging in activities such as playing tennis, relaxing or walking.  The three results lit up parts of her brain associated with those three activities.  Does that mean that she’s conscious, horribly trapped in her own body?  Alternatively, do these results constitute artifacts, suggesting something less than true consciousness?

The interpretation could have immense consequences for the care that should be given to at least some vegetative state patients.

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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Skblllzzzz says:

    Reminds me of the guy who was diagnosed as being catatonic, until a clever nurse noticed a minute twitch of his knee and mounted a micro-switch. Turned out the guy just couldn't move anything (exept for his knee) but otherwise had all faculties in place. Proved to be a great chess player too…….

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