A Canadian man left in a persistent vegetative state following a car crash 12 year ago has been able to tell doctors how he feels. The research team used an fMRI scan to read Scott Routley’s brain activity, before asking him simple Yes-No questions, and were then able to ask him if he was feeling any pain or not. The findings, which sound more like the plotline of a medical drama, could change the lives of both sufferers and their families, from how the patient is cared for, to how he or she wishes to live.
Although Mr. Routley’s family were convinced that he was communicating with them, using his thumb and eyes, his care team were unconvinced. When the researchers, however, led by neuroscientist Professor Adrian Owen, began testing Mr Routley, they found evidence that he knew who he was and where he was.
Not all patients, however, respond to the scans, which measure the blood flow to an area of the front of the brain, called the premotor cortex. Patients are asked to imagine themselves playing tennis, and then asked if to answer yes or no to the question, “Are you playing tennis?” The blood-flow pattern can then be used to deduce the answers to other Yes-No questions.
Mr. Routley’s neurologist for a decade was astonished by the results. “I was impressed and amazed that he was able to show these cognitive responses,” said Professor Bryan Young of University Hospital, London. “He had the clinical picture of a typical vegetative patient and showed no spontaneous movements that looked meaningful.”