Friday, February 11, 2005

The Ring of Hell Dante Never Imagined

Feb. 8, 2005
People in a non-responsive, brain-damaged state may be aware and trapped in their own bodies.
In a hair-raising study published in the journal Neurology, New York researchers found that when they played audio tapes of relatives reminiscing about their lives to two brain-damaged, minimally responsive patients, the two men showed the same brain wave activity in MRI scans as seven healthy volunteers. The two men had active cerebral networks; they were just unable to respond, trapped, apparently in their bodies when everyone thought they were unaware. One researcher not involved and quoted in Benedict Carey’s New York Times piece, said the research gave him goose bumps. Indeed. The ramifications are extraordinary because it opens whole new areas of research into brain damage and has vast legal repercussions. Remember Terri Schiavo and the fight over whether to keep her alive in Florida? Most people (except her parents who have sued to prevent her doctors from pulling the plug) assumed she was unaware of her surroundings. Maybe not. The research also defines a whole new hell we thought reserved for ALS patients. For a good roundup on research into the field, also see Clive Thompson in Slate.


Anonymous said...

See Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Also available in an illustrated form by Peter Kuper ( who draws Spy vs. Spy for Mad magazine.

clint said...

Without paying or making a special trip to the library -- but just from the abstract, it's worth noting that the two patients in the study were intermittently responsive. ("The minimally conscious state (MCS) resulting from severe brain damage refers to a subset of patients who demonstrate unequivocal, but intermittent, behavioral evidence of awareness of self or their environment." abstract)

While this result is suggestive that some patients showing no responses ever might be "trapped inside" presumably this brain activity would be easily visible on an EEG trace. It would be cruel to use this result to give false hope to those whose loved ones don't show any brain activity.

Joel Shurkin said...

Good point. It makes decisions even more difficult doesn't it?