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In Vegetative State Consciousness Can Exist

Update Date: Oct 20, 2014 12:06 PM EDT

People in vegetative state may be conscious and aware of their environment, a new study has shown.

According to scientists at Cambridge, brains in vegetative patients can respond to commands but the body is unable to communicate. This finding can help caregivers and relatives become more optimistic about caring for such patients. Through their study researchers hope doctors can identify patients who are conscious.

"This type of information might be helpful for families and the healthcare team looking after the patient. We have heard anecdotally that carers change their level of interaction with patients once they know there may be some hope of awareness," said Dr. Srivas Chennu, study's lead researcher told BBC.

Conventionally, people in vegetative states are thought to be unaware of their surroundings.                 

The study involved 13 participants in vegetative state. First, scientists connected electrodes to the scalps of the participants to detect brain electrical activity and compared it with healthy adults. The electrical patterns measured in four participants were similar to healthy adults.

In the second stage, scientists observed the brain real-time through MRI when commands were given. The participants were asked to imagine playing tennis. Researchers found that in three of the participants the area of the brain linked to planning movements was functional, implying that the participants were conscious.

"This suggests some of the brain networks that support consciousness in healthy adults may be well-preserved in a number of people in persistent vegetative state too," said Dr. Chennu.

Another researchers associated with the study said the results were promising and clinical assessment of patients could be taken up.

"There were some limitations to the test, but with other tests it could help in the clinical assessment of patients. If a patient's awareness networks are intact, then we know that they are likely to be aware of what is going on around them," said Dr Tristan Bekinschtein according to BBC.

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