His father takes him to the movies even though doctors assume the patient has been unresponsive and in a vegetative state for the past 16 years. But when Canadian scientists tested his brain functioning while watching a short film, they realized the patient understood the plot of the movie – and, in turn, probably understands what’s happening in his daily life.
Using what they’re calling a “game-changing” brain scanning technique, Canadian researchers say they can detect consciousness in patients thought to be in a vegetative state.
The breakthrough research out of the University of Western Ontario is another piece in a series of findings on communicating with patients thought to be completely unresponsive.
Last year, the researchers worked with three brain injury victims – one who had been in a vegetative state for 12 years following a car accident, knew his name, his identity and that he was in hospital.
This time around, a father reached out to the scientists led by Dr. Adrian Owen in hopes of learning how aware his 34-year-old son is. Turns out, he’s much more cognizant than his “unresponsive” state suggests.
The researchers handpicked an Alfred Hitchcock short movie – about eight minutes long – for their study. In it, a little boy finds a loaded gun and waves it around, even pointing it at people, thinking it isn’t real.
A group of healthy participants watched the film as the scientists documented their brain activity during suspenseful, scary moments. Then Owen and his team showed the film to the patient in a vegetative state.
“[This] patient responded to the particular events exactly the same way as healthy participants did when it came to particularly gripping parts,” Owen, the study’s co-author, told Global News. He’s a neuroscientist who’s spent the last 25 years working in brain imaging. He’s also the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging.
“On this basis, we were able to conclude the patient was actually following the plot of the movie, he wasn’t just in a vegetative state. He understood when the plot changed directions, and he was responding to particular events that were scary or offered relief. This is very important…we can deduce that this happens to him during real life events too.”