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Scientists Communicate With Patient In “Vegegative State” For Over 10 Years

A Patient Begins Communicating With Researchers Using The Power Of His Brain And Gives Insight Into Possible Misdiagnosed Patients.


Published September 16, 2014


A study published in The Findings of the National Academy of Sciences (FNAS) notes that patients who are conscious but unable to speak or otherwise show voluntary behavior may be able to convey their conscious experiences to others.

In the past, it has been impossible to determine whether these patients are conscious or not and also impossible to communicate with them.  A research team now suspects that many patients have been misdiagnosed as lacking consciousness.

In an experiment, the researchers applied state-of-the-art diagnostic tools to the brain of a 37-year-old patient named “Alex” (not his real name).  Alex was able to convey a “yes” or “no” just by thinking about moving his right or left arm.  Although his limbs have not worked in over 10 years, a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner could detect which limb he was thinking about moving.

Although pleased that they could communicate with Alex, the researchers and Alex’s family were alarmed at what he had to say.  “Once the initial joy of communicating with [Alex] wore off, we realized we had some counseling work that needed to be done,” said Punit Singh, a fellow at the Cognitive Neuroscience Center at Alberta University.  Alex appears to be displeased with his treatment over the past years.

Most of his sentences that he painstakingly spells out using the electrical circuits of his brain are punctuated with recriminations and obscenities.  His first full sentence to the researchers was: “Listen, you f-ckers, cut out the f-cking [Hispanic] music with [the] [custodial staff] at night.”

Singh is hoping that relations with Alex improve.  “We want to gain some insight into his condition by communicating with him, but he is very emotional and hostile,” said Singh.  “He has provided a list of audiobooks that he would like to listen to, but our budget does not provide for entertainment for the patients,” he said.

Alex has refused to answer questions until all of his entertainment needs are met – including entertainment of the adult variety.  The Center’s visiting rules, however, do not allow for any type of unsupervised visitors outside of close family and friends.  “It seems that Alex’s limbic system is intact,” said Singh.  “This is fortunate, but we are at a standoff because the Center cannot allow sex workers.”

Even without Alex’s cooperation, the team asserts that their findings may soon lead to a methodology that provides “evidence for intact conscious experiences in a brain-injured patient.” 

Also, Singh is hopeful for future data collection from his subject.  “I admit that I wish we had a better working relationship with [Alex], but there are coercive measures we can take because he still is classified as vegetative and does not have the same rights as an officially cognizant patient,” he said.  “We have more cards to play.”

The researchers include postdoctoral fellows Elliot Greenberg and Patricia Stein-Chung.