Brain injuries can be devastating both for the victims and their families. As a personal injury attorney, I am often called upon by families of injury victims to help them make very difficult decisions regarding an injured loved one. The most difficult decisions a family can face are those that involve an injury victim in a vegetative state. But new brain research gives doctors and families of brain injury victims both cause for hope and caution.
Injury Attorney Looks At fMRI Technology And New Brain Research
The hope is that we will learn much more about the activity of brain injured patients in a vegetative state; the cause for caution or concern is that the patients may be much more “alive” and normal in terms of brain activity and ability to think then we previously thought. And this latter point raises serious questions and implications regarding end of life directives and a family’s decision to stop feeding a vegetative state patient.
As reported by the Washington Post, a new study using functional MRI (fMRI) technology looked at dozens of patients in vegetative states and the findings are stunning.
According to the research, the head injury victims, many thought to be devoid of any awareness, were, in a word, conscious. The brain injury specialists and researchers used fMRI and other technology to analyze the patients brains while they were asked questions and given directives – imagine you are playing tennis, explore the rooms in your house, is your father’s name _____? Several of the patients were able to respond with their brains exactly as a normal person would. In other words, their brain scan was identical to that of a normal person when asked the same questions.
Five of the positive results were able to use their brains in exactly the same way as the normal volunteers over and over again. And four of those five subjects had been diagnosed as “vegetative state.”
And what researchers leaned next is even more stunning. Researchers took this new information and decided to use it in order to attempt to communicate with a brain injury victim in such a state.
The scientists spoke to a 29-year old man thought to lack any awareness. They asked him yes or no questions and told him to think about tennis in order to indicate a yes response and to imagine the rooms in his home for a no response. These different thoughts utilize different portions of the brain and can be easily monitored and observed with brain scanning technology. His responses were identical to those of a normal person in terms of brain activity and he got every single question right.
The results described by the study and the scientist, stunning as they are, present new concerns and ethical issues regarding the treatment of brain injury victims.
On the one hand, the joy brought about by the possibility of being able to communicate with a person thought to be lost to the world around them is hard to overstate. However, the 29-year old man described above still lacks the ability to communicate at all with this body. Thus, any communication and the meaning of that communication is very limited and anyone trying to use his responses must proceed with extreme caution.
For instance, if you ask a brain injured patient in the state of the test subjects “do you wish to die.” And they answer “yes.” What does that mean? Does that really mean they want to die? Or does it mean maybe? And what if they say “no?” Again, does that really mean “no?” Does it mean “no today?”
The nuance involved in communicating may be lost due to the nature of this form of communication. And the impact any response to questions about end of life wishes or treatment can bring about devastating emotional consequences for a family.
Let’s hope that this new research can be used to better treat brain injury victims and patients in a state minimal consciousness, for despite the caution that must be observed due to the implications of this study, its findings are incredible.