A neuroscientist has found that at least 20 percent of people thought to be in a vegetative state are completely aware of what’s happening around them and to them, but they are unable to respond or move. This means that people thought to be in a ‘vegetative state’ — similar to Terri Schiavo — may be suffering horrible abuses while being completely aware of what’s being done to them.
Dr. Adrian Owen, the author of Into the Gray Zone, is a neuroscientist who has been studying how people who are thought to be unaware — often because they cannot answer commands such as “squeeze my hand” — are actually very aware. He asked the question, “could somebody command follow with their brain?”
By scanning the brains of conscious individuals and asking them yes or no questions, he took note of the areas of their brains that were activated with blood flow. Rather than answer yes or no, these healthy individuals were asked to think of playing a game of tennis if the answer to the question was yes and to think of moving through their own home if the answer was no. Each of those thoughts uses a different part of the brain and doctors could watch which part became activated when asking the questions.
Owen still recalls the first patient that he tried this on, a woman who was thought to be in a vegetative state.
“What we’re doing is returning the ability to communicate to some patients who seem to have lost that forever,” said Owen. “[…] I can still remember exactly what it felt like the first time we saw a patient that we thought was in a vegetative state activate their brain in the scanner. The patient’s name was Kate. Nobody would have predicted that we would have seen brain activity in response to asking a patient to do something and when we first saw it it was absolutely astonishing. Before we made that discovery, nobody ever bothered to look at any of these patients.”
Owen went on to try this with hundreds of people thought to be unresponsive and vegetative. What he found was astonishing.
“We’ve scanned several hundred patients who were presumed to be in a vegetative state,” he said. “It turns out that about 20 percent, or one in five of them, is not that at all. By that I mean, they’re aware of the situation they’re in. They’re aware of conversations going on around them. They have thoughts. They have emotions. They maybe even have feelings about their future.”
What Owen discovered will change the way doctors and family members treat people who are living in an apparent vegetative state but are actually aware. Rather than possibly assuming some of these people would rather die, doctors will actually be able to ask them how they feel, if they are in pain, and what they want for their lives. They will no longer be locked inside their minds, forced to watch as well-meaning doctors and family members make life or death decisions for them. They will no longer have to sit in pain unable to express it. And the lives of people around the world who are currently written off as “vegetative” will be opened to a whole new way of living. Because that’s what they have always been: living human beings worthy of the best that medical care and love can give them.