Many nonfiction classics about medicine–the memoir Diving Bell and the Butterfly, or Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings derive their fascination from the mystery of consciousness. After a severe brain injury, it can be impossible to tell whether a person is existing in a vegetative state or has full awareness combined with an inability to communicate–the dreaded “locked-in syndrome.”
Now a team of Italian doctors has devised an objective test to measure brain activity in such patients. The team of Dr. Marcello Massimini, a neurophysiologist at the University of Milan, first delivered a pulse of magnetism through the brains of test subjects, like a powerful wakeup call. Then they used an EEG to record the brain waves in response, focusing on the interplay between regions of the brain and the coordination of activity. Finally, they derived a numerical measurement of the patterns, which they called the PCI–short for “perturbational complexity index.”
In the small sample study, patients in a minimally conscious state scored the same as healthy people under deep anesthesia, but two locked-in patients scored as well as awake, healthy people. The application of the test could be invaluable in making end-of-life decisions, and in teaching us more about what consciousness really means.
Every year, Fast Company names its 100 Most Creative People, highlighting the global leaders in tech, design, media, music, movies, marketing, television, sports and more. Dr. Marcello Massimini, and other thought leaders, will be considered for 2014’s list.