A man who has been in a vegetative state for more than ten years, has communicated to doctors that he is in no pain – by the power of thought.
His case calls into question court rulings which have allowed patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) to die of thirst and hunger.
Doctors used a pioneering technique on Canadian Scott Routley, who was left severely brain damaged after a car crash.
They put Mr Routley in a special brain scanner and asked him to imagine playing tennis and then walking in his house – blood flowed to a different part of the brain according to what he was thinking.
Doctors then asked Mr Routley to change what he was imagining according to whether the answers to their questions were ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
It is the first time a patient thought to be in a vegetative state has answered a question relating to their care, showing awareness of their condition.
Professor Adrian Owen led the research at the Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario.
He said: “Scott has been able to show he has a conscious, thinking mind. We have scanned him several times and his pattern of brain activity shows he is clearly choosing to answer our questions. We believe he knows who and where he is.”
Professor Owen believes this is a breakthrough which could improve the care of patients in a persistent vegetative state, allowing doctors to ask when they would prefer to be washed and fed.
Around one-in-five PVS patients showed some level of conscious thought using this technique, according to the research team.
It has been used on a number of patients at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, and in Western Ontario, Canada.