New device offers hope to 'deep coma' victims

Mending brains

Adrian Owen of Cambridge University has already shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that some victims who show no outward signs of awareness, can not only comprehend what people are saying, but also answer simple questions.

Now, he and his team have gone a step further and shown that a similar response can be achieved using a much cheaper and smaller Electroencephalography (EEG) machine which measures electrical activity in the brain.

Dr Owen believes the new devices could be available within 10 years. “I would never have believed that within a few years we would be actually communicating with a patient who was in a persistent vegetative state.

“We have seen something that is quite extraordinary. We now have a moral and ethical obligation to find ways for them to communicate properly. We cannot be putting them in a fMRI scanner every time they want to communicate.

“EEG could work as well and it’s cheaper and portable. I feel it will be possible for people to steer wheelchairs and be able to communicate,” he said. Dr Owen laid the foundation for his prediction after studying a 29-year-old man brain-damaged in a car crash in 2003. The man was in a coma for two years before slipping into a persistent vegetative state.

He was seemingly awake, occasionally blinked, but showed no other sign of being aware of the outside world. But Dr Owen’s team and Steven Laureys of University of Liege, discovered it was possible to talk to him by tapping into his brain activity. They used a fMRI scanner to measure brain response while the patient was asked questions. Because the brain signals associated with “yes” and “no” are complex and too similar to distinguish, they came up with a code. The team asked the patient to think of playing tennis for “yes” and moving around his home for “no”. While the movement in tennis sparks “spatial” areas at the top of the brain, the “navigational task” of moving around your home sparks “motion” areas in brain.

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