How do people communicate to those stuck in a coma? For decades, people have tried to speak to them while they were in vegetative states in hopes that they could actually be heard. But all that's changing these days, as researchers are using controversial experiments to communicate with people in comas.
Neuroscience researcher Adrian Owens is one of those scientists developing methods to talk to these patients.
"The patient was only 24 years old when his life was devastated by a car accident. Alive but unresponsive, he had been languishing in what neurologists refer to as a vegetative state for five years, when Owen, a neuro-scientist then at the University of Cambridge, UK, and his colleagues at the University of Liège in Belgium, put him into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and started asking him questions.
"Incredibly, he provided answers. A change in blood flow to certain parts of the man's injured brain convinced Owen that patient 23 was conscious and able to communicate. It was the first time that anyone had exchanged information with someone in a vegetative state."
All this was done less than two years ago. Now, Owens is at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada and his team of scientists are making rapid advances.
"One goal is to identify other brain systems, such as smell or taste, that might be intact and usable for communication. Imagining sucking a lemon, for example, can produce a pH-level change in the mouth and a recognizable brain signal. Owen has shown that registering jokes provokes a characteristic response in healthy people and plans to try it on patients in a vegetative state. He hopes that he can use these tests to find some level of responsiveness in patients who cannot produce the tennis and navigation patterns of activity because of their level of brain damage.
"The studies will also explore whether these patients have the capacity for greater intellectual depth. Owen thinks that some people in a vegetative state will eventually be able to express hopes and desires, perhaps like French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who dictated his memoirs by repeatedly winking one eye. "I don't see a reason why they could not have a similar richness of thought, although undoubtedly some will not," Owen says."