Words of Man Thought to be 'Vegetable' Were False

When the story broke in November that a paralyzed Belgian man, who had been diagnosed as being in a vegetative state for 23 years supposedly typed words, people across the world were captivated.

"I shall never forget the day when they discovered what was truly wrong with me -- it was my second birth," 46-year-old Rom Houben supposedly told the German magazine Der Spiegel, communicating via a keyboard and an assistant.

Houben's doctors have now concluded those words were not his own, but say brain scans show activity and the diagnosis that he is in a vegetative state still appears to be wrong.

Video: Medical test show that man thought to be in a coma was actual conscious.
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Immediately after Houben appeared in the media, skeptics cried foul over the facilitated communication method in which an assistant holds the hand of the paralyzed person over a keyboard and waits for slight movements as a signal to type.

According to a Feb. 20 interview with Agence France Presse, Houben's neurologist Dr. Steven Laureys said additional testing showed that facilitated communication indeed "did not work in the majority of cases."

For example, if an object was shown just to Houben while his assistant typist was out of the room, Houben could not describe it when the assistant came back to help him type. Critics of facilitated communication guess either slight involuntary movements are misinterpreted by the assistant, or assistants may even be intentionally speaking for the paralyzed.

Yet, brain scans still show that Houben's mind is far too active for him to be considered in a vegetative state. Now that his words typed out by facilitated communication have been debunked, exactly what Houben is thinking or how much he is thinking is still a mystery.

What Could be Happening in Houben's Mind?

After Houben's car crash in 1983, doctors diagnosed him as being in a vegetative state -- meaning his brain is so damaged that he is incapable of conscious thoughts, but his brain stem is working well enough to keep him alive and for Houben to go through wake and sleep cycles.

As Dr. James L. Bernat of the American Academy of Neurology explained, "awake" can be different from "conscious."

The Difference Between Awake and Conscious

"One is called wakefulness; eyes open, eyes moving -- that element is conducted primarily by the brainstem," Bernat said. "The second dimension of consciousness requires self-awareness -- they (the patients) are aware of what's going on, they can feel, they can think.

A person in a vegetative state may be awake, but is not conscious. A vegetative state is also different from a coma, which is a state of full paralysis and full unconsciousness similar to the experience of going under anesthesia.

Decades after Houben's accident, he was sent to Laureys of the University of Liege in Belgium, where doctors use new brain imaging to retest patients who were diagnosed as being in a vegetative state.

In a small imaging study of 44 patients thought to be in a vegetative state, Laureys found 18 of them responded to communication, according to the Gaurdian.

In a separate paper published in the journal Neuroradiology, Laureys wrote that he found three patients, including Houben, were misdiagnosed as being in a vegetative state with an old technique called the Glasgow Coma Scale, which is a 15-point check list of eye and motor movements in response to questions.

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