The Capacity of The Vegetative State

Neil E. Hendershot of the PA Elder, Estate & Fiduciary Law Blog writes here about an October 15, 2007 New Yorker article entitled, “Silent Minds”, by Jerome Groopman, that addressed comprehensively (Mr. Hendershot’s word) “what scanning techniques are revealing about vegetative patients.”

Claims by by Adrian Owen, a young British neuroscientist, include: some patients in a vegetative state recognize their loved ones’ photographs, comprehend speech, and are able to perform complex mental tasks on command.

Whenever pictures of Bainbridge’s family flashed on the screen, an area of her brain called the fusiform gyrus, which neuroscientists had identified as playing a central role in face recognition, lit up on the scan.***

The patients’ brains were scanned while they listened to a recording of simple sentences interspersed with meaningless “noise sounds.” The scans of some of the patients showed the same response to the sentences as scans of healthy volunteers[.]***

Owen’s final experiment was the most ambitious: a test to determine whether vegetative patients who seemed able to comprehend speech could also perform a complex mental task on command. He decided to ask them to imagine playing tennis.***

The woman had to be able to hear and understand Owen’s instructions, retrieve a memory of tennis—including a conception of forehand and backhand and how the ball and the racquet meet—and focus her attention for at least thirty seconds. To Owen’s astonishment, she passed the test.***

I’m more than skeptical (despite an austere hope) about such claims and the methods used to reach them, so I’ve sent the article to neuroscientist-friend of mine for his opinions… Nonetheless, I thought to post it now for your edification and comments.

…To Be Continued…

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