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Portable brain scanner proves consciousness in vegetative patients

Published on 11/11/2011

A breakthrough study has shown that some patients previously believed to be in a vegetative state can actually respond to basic questions using a portable bedside brain scanner.

Researchers at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and University Hospital in Liege, Belgium, looked at 16 patients who had been diagnosed using the official criteria for a vegetative state. Each of the 16, along with 12 healthy people, were fitted with electrodes and asked to imagine clenching their right hand and toes.

Remarkably, three of the vegetative patients responded to the question. The portable brain scanner showed identical brain activity to the patterns created when healthy patients imagined making the movements.

"The future for us is to try to develop a technology for allowing some of these patients to actually communicate in a relatively routine way with the outside world, using technology that is more economic and portable than the fMRI," said Professor Adrian Owen from the University of Western Ontario, in Canada.

Scientists have already demonstrated responsiveness in some people in a vegetative state through the use of a highly specialised and expensive scanner. However, the logistics and expense of this technique means it is not practical in every case, and could not be used on a regular basis.

A relatively cheap and portable EEG device, which can be taken to the home, could transform the prospects for such patients. If electrodes on the scalp could pick up signals from brain activity, they could be used to power a computer cursor.

Although there is still some distance to go before friends will be able to communicate with patients, the study, published in the Lancet Journal, will give hope to the families and friends of patients in a vegetative state.

© ActiveQuote Ltd. 2011

Categories:  Medical
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