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Monday, August 20, 2007

Another "human vegetable" turns out to be wired for thought

Here's another case of a patient considered to be in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) who was actually mentally active:
WASHINGTON, Aug 13 (Reuters) - Scans have shown near-normal brain activity in a second patient who is in a vegetative state, British researchers reported on Monday in a study that may show a way to predict who is likely to recover from the usually hopeless condition.


The article, by British science writer Maggie Fox, discourages any suggestion that patients might have been inappropriately written off since the term "persistent vegetative state" was coined in 1972. I can't help wondering though - is this the high-tech version of being buried alive?

If people conclude that you are not mentally active when you have no way of communicating it, will you be forced to die slowly, all the while aware of what is happening?

The fact that people in a "persistent vegetative state" may be capable of considerable mental activity was highlighted in 2006:
A 23-year-old woman who has been in a vegetative state since suffering devastating brain damage in a traffic accident has stunned doctors by performing mental tasks for them. Brain scans revealed that the woman, who has shown no outward signs of awareness since the accident in July last year, could understand people talking to her and was able to imagine playing tennis or walking around her home when asked to by doctors.


Here's the abstract of the Science paper, "Detecting Awareness in the Vegetative State":
We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate preserved conscious awareness in a patient fulfilling the criteria for a diagnosis of vegetative state. When asked to imagine playing tennis or moving around her home, the patient activated predicted cortical areas in a manner indistinguishable from that of healthy volunteers.


Personally, I think that "vegetative" conveys entirely the wrong idea and should be abandoned as a term. Vegetation is, by definition, not human, so if you are human you are not vegetative. If we would not say that a person is in a "canine state" ["He's going to the dogs, I tell you, to the DOGS!"], we should nto say that he is in a "vegetative" state. Some people who have severe brain damage may never be able to recover, but that is not the same thing as pretending that they are, or ever were, vegetables.

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