Hey, you know all those people who’ve been declared to be in a vegetative state and then starved to death. Well, it turns out that they may not have…uhm…technically…been in what some might label a…uhm…vegetative state. Sorry about that guys. It seems that many of them might have actually been pretty aware of what was going on.
Canadian neuroscientists have detected conscious activity in a patient who has been in a “vegetative state” for 12 years using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Writing in the latest issue of JAMA Neurology, they claim that “in this study we establish for the first time that some entirely behaviorally nonresponsive patients can use selective attention to communicate”.
Lorina Naci and Adrian M. Owen of Western University, in Ontario, examined three patients who were believed to be completely unresponsive after severe brain injuries, two of them in a minimally conscious state and one in a vegetative state. They were able to “respond” by focusing their attention in a way which could be picked up with the fMRI scanner. Two of them communicated repeatedly and accurately. Many bedside assessments had completely missed their capacity for willed behaviour.
“These results suggest,” they write, “that some patients who are presumed to mostly or entirely lack cognitive abilities can have coherent thoughts about the environment that surrounds them.”
The plight of patients in so-called vegetative state can be awful. Research has shown that up to 40% are misdiagnosed and actually have some degree of awareness.
So maybe, just maybe, we should stop killing them. Or are we just calling grown people in bed very big blobs of tissue and saying it’s ok to terminate them.
We can’t call them “potential humans” like they call the unborn. How about we label them “humans past their expiration date.”