A Canadian man named Scott Routley, who has been in a vegetative state for 12 years, was able to communicate with doctors via a brain scan, proving that even a seemingly brain dead person may have an active and fully conscious mind. He was able to successfully explain to doctors that he is not in pain.
A vegetative state is defined by being unaware of your surrounding and incapable of conscious thought. Until this remarkable discovery, Routley was thought to be a complete vegetable.
This is the first time in medical history that a vegetative patient has been able to relate some type of clinically relevant information to doctors. British neuroscientist professor Adrian Owen, leader of the research team at the Brain and Mind Institute of Western Ontario, said:
Scott has been able to show he has a conscious, thinking mind. We have scanned him several times and his pattern of brain activity shows he is clearly choosing to answer our questions. We believe he knows who and where he is.
The team uses an fMRI scanner to located active regions of the brain. They ask the patient to imagine playing tennis or walking around their home. These thought process create very distinct patterns of activity in the brain. The doctors are able to assign one thought process as meaning ‘yes’ and the other as meaning ‘no.’ In this way, Routley is able to have a conversation with the doctors through his imagination.
Proffessor Owen believes this breakthrough will make a profound difference in improving the lives of patients all around the world. He explains that:
In [the] future we could ask what we could do to improve their quality of life. It could be simple things like the entertainment we provide, or the times of day they are washed and fed.
Professor Owen believes that 20% or more of people assumed to be in a complete vegetative state may in fact be completely conscious.
I believe far more time and consideration must go into ensuring people like Routley are still able to live as comfortably as possible. It is equally important that these people are able to make decisions for themselves. They may not have control of their body, but their life is still their own.