Woman in Vegetative State Shows Ability to Imagine

The 23-year-old patient lay in her hospital bed. She had suffered severe head injuries in a car crash and remained unconscious, or so it seemed.

After five months like this, her doctors in the United Kingdom concluded she was in a vegetative state.

But was she really "unaware" of what was happening around her?

Researchers at the University of Cambridge decided to find out more. So they put her into a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scanner and measured specific brain activity, and then compared her brain activity to that of healthy volunteers. The journal Science published the findings this week.

What they found was, amazingly, the patient's brain lit up on the MRI in the same areas that lit up on the volunteers. For example, the researchers asked her to imagine walking around her house. The parts of her brain responsible for navigation lit up, just as they did in the volunteers.

"It tells us the patient can understand speech because, of course, we asked her to do these things," said Adrian Owen, at the University of Cambridge. "It also tells us she is able to perform simple tasks in her head, such as imagining certain scenarios."

Doctors warn that this is just one patient tested after only five months in a vegetative state. The findings do not necessarily mean that many other patients have similar awareness, especially those with the kind of massive brain damage suffered by Terry Schiavo, the Florida woman who died last year after her feeding tube was removed, after much legal controversy.

But the promise of this research is that it provides a new way to "test" which patients are in a vegetative state and which patients may actually be conscious and aware of the world around them.

"This paper says that in certain cases, we are going to miss things, and here's a tool that may make the picture clearer," said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a neurology professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

A year later, the patient in this case is making slow progress. Her eyes can now follow objects, and doctors say she's showing some minimal consciousness.