MRI Suggests Comatose Woman Hears Commands

Functional magnetic resonance imaging shows brain activity similar to control subjects

THURSDAY, Sept. 7 (HealthDay News) -- A brain imaging analysis suggests that an unconscious woman -- in a vegetative state because of a traumatic brain injury -- may understand and respond to certain verbal commands, according to a brief case report in the Sept. 8 issue of Science.

Adrian Owen, Ph.D., from the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, U.K., and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that a comatose woman responded to commands to picture herself "playing tennis" or "walking through her house" by activating regions of her brain that were similarly activated by normal subjects after given identical commands. The patient's brain activity response to ambiguous words like "creek/creak" was similar to controls as well.

"These results confirm that, despite fulfilling the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of vegetative state, this patient retained the ability to understand spoken commands and to respond to them through her brain activity, rather than through speech or movement," the authors write.

In an accompanying perspective, Lionel Naccache, M.D., of INSERM in Orsay, France, writes that while the work does not prove that the patient is truly conscious, it "paves the way for future functional brain-imaging studies on comatose and vegetative state patients."

Full Text (subscription or payment may be required)

Physician's Briefing