Twelve years ago, Canadian Scott Routley sustained a severe brain injury in a car crash. He was diagnosed as being in a permanent ‘vegetative’ state. It was thought that he was unable to communicate with others. However his family did not agree. They found that Scott was aware of activities going on around him and that he did possess some ability to communicate with them.
The use of high-tech brain imaging seems to have substantiated his family’s belief. By means of a functional MRI, Mr. Routley answered ‘no’ to the question posed to him: “Are you in pain? Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist working at the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Brain and Mind explains:
“Brain imaging techniques are helping us to understand more about what some of these patients can and can’t do, particularly things they can do that might not be apparent from standard clinical examination”.1
Patients are asked to respond to questions by imagining themselves engaged in two activities. To answer, yes the patient imagines himself playing tennis. To answer no, the patient imagines himself walking through the house. The use of the MRI allows the researchers to measure brain activity in these patients.
This medical breakthrough should have a positive impact on the lives of those believed to be in a ‘vegetative state’, a state defined as lacking awareness of self or environment with sleep and wake cycles and eye movement. Studies have shown that the rate of misdiagnosis is high. As reported in the Ottawa Citizen, neuroscientist Adrian Owen said: “There is an enormously high misdiagnosis rate in this population, it’s more than 40%.”
The label ‘persistent vegetative state’ is dehumanizing as a man is never a vegetable no matter how unresponsive or limited his functioning appears to be. There are those who believe that it is acceptable to euthanize by dehydration patients who are labeled as being in a state of ‘PVS’. Respect is owed to human life from its beginnning to its natural end.
This exciting breakthrough is good news along with the researchers work to help these patients communicate through the use of EEG at the bedside.
1.Ottawa Citizen. November 14, 2012. Vegetative man begins ‘talking ‘ to researchers.