Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, is on a mission to communicate with patients deemed to be in a vegetative state. Over the past decade, he has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as a sort of interrogation tool—mapping the brain activity of comatose people as he asks them a series of questions. He has found that in a subset of patients thought to be far gone, the brain activity in response to questioning was comparable to what’s observed in healthy people.
In a 2010 study, for example, he used an interrogation technique that consisted of asking a patient in a vegetative state to think of playing tennis if the answer to a question was “yes,” and to think of navigating through a house if the answer was “no.” Imagining either scenario activates a different region of the brain in healthy subjects. One patient in particular, was asked very specific questions, such as the name of his father or whether he had any siblings, and was able to correctly answer five out of six questions.
The results of the study caused a media furor and prompted many experts in the field to question whether the patients were truly “conscious” or whether their responses were involuntary reflexes.
Despite highly controversial debate of consciousness, Owen believes that up to 20 percent of people in a vegetative state in the United States are capable of communicating. “What we're seeing here is a population of totally locked-in patients,” Owen told Nature.
Owen is currently trying to extend the procedure to electroencephalograms (EEG), which is cheaper, smaller, and quicker to use than fMRI.