In the United States there are tens of thousands of people whose lives hover in limbo. They lay in hospital beds in a vegetative state, waiting for the day when doctors find a fix. Yet of these thousands of people, as many as a fifth may be experiencing a far worse fate than just paralysis.
Some vegetative patients' minds are still buzzing, even if their bodies are not. They can see and hear and think, but they can't communicate with the outside world. Known as locked-in syndrome, the state has different levels of severity. Most can still move their eyes, says the Guardian, but some can't even do that. Using brain scanning equipment, researchers are working on ways to communicate with these aware-but-trapped patients.
In the video above, neuroscientist Adrian Owen and postdoctoral researcher Lorina Naci describe the results of a new study that seems to suggest that not only could one locked-in patient engage in higher-ordered thinking, but that the patient's brain activity was similar to that of healthy individuals.
Set up in a brain scanning fMRI, two locked-in patients and 12 healthy participants all watched a short movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. For one of the patients, says Owen to the CBC, the researchers found that “his brain changed at all of those key moments in the movie in exactly the same way as a healthy volunteer,” reacting to the suspense-filled plot. The other patient, however, showed no such response.
The long term goal of this line of research, says Owen, is to give these patients a way to have a say in their own treatment.