Brain-injured man in vegetative state for 16 years responds to Hitchcock thriller
Canada, Sep 18, 2014: Using brain-scanning techniques, Canadian researchers have found that a person who had become completely unresponsive after a brain injury 16 years ago could follow an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
The person was in a vegetative state usually thought to mean that there was practically no consciousness.
The person showed the same brain activity patterns as normal persons while watching a highly engaging short film directed by Hitchcock.
It looked like the person was following the plot of the thriller, like normal persons.
Lorina Naci, a postdoctoral fellow from Western Ontario University’s Brain and Mind Institute, and her colleagues Rhodri Cusack, Mimma Anello and Adrian Owen, reported their findings on 15 September issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Participants in the study watched the short film by Hitchcock while inside the 3T Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Scanner at Western’s Centre for Functional and Metabolic Mapping. All the persons, including the brain injured person, showed a common pattern of synchronized brain activity.
The long-time unresponsive participant’s brain response during the same movie strongly resembled that of the healthy participants, suggesting not only that he was consciously aware, but also that he understood the movie.
"For the first time, we show that a patient with unknown levels of consciousness can monitor and analyze information from their environment, in the same way as healthy individuals," said Naci, lead researcher on the new study.
"We already know that up to one in five of these patients are misdiagnosed as being unconscious and this new technique may reveal that that number is even higher."
Owen, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging, explained, "This approach can detect not only whether a patient is conscious, but also what that patient might be thinking. Thus, it has important practical and ethical implications for the patient’s standard of care and quality of life."
The researchers hope that this novel method will enable better understanding of behaviorally unresponsive patients, who may be misdiagnosed as lacking consciousness.