HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

New Research on Brain Damaged Patients

The New York Times today reports on a new brain-imaging study suggesting that many brain-damaged people who were thought to be almost completely unaware do hear and register what is going on around them but are unable to respond.   The Times notes that such results, if repeated, would have dramatic implications for how to care for these patients, including such patients as Terri Schiavo.  The original study may be found in this week's edition of the journal Neurology.  The Times describes the study as follows:

In the study, a team of neuroscientists in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., used imaging technology to compare brain activity in two young men determined to be minimally conscious with that of seven healthy men and women. In a measure of overall brain activity, the two groups were vastly different: the two minimally conscious men showed less than half the activity of the others.

But the researchers also recorded an audiotape for each of the nine subjects in which a relative or loved one reminisced, telling familiar stories and recalling shared experiences. In each of the brain-damaged patients, the sound of the voice prompted a pattern of brain activity similar to that of the healthy participants.

The study results should encourage more research in this area, and hopefully a better understanding of what these patients are actually experiencing.  I must admit, I agreed with this quote from Dr. Joseph Fins, chief of medical ethics division of New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center, "This study gave me goose bumps, because it shows this possibility of this profound isolation, that these people are there, that they've been there all along, even though we've been treating them as if they're not."  It must be a nightmare to be trapped in your body and unable to tell anyone.  [bm]

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