I woke up yesterday morning to a story on the radio about a man in a vegetative state – a term that makes me uneasy – who had been able to communicate with his doctors through brain scans.
The man had been left “severely brain damaged” – more uneasiness – after a car crash. He has been unable to move or speak for more than a decade. Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the patient, Scott Routley, was able to answer yes or no questions and was able to tell the researchers at the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario that he was not in pain.
The lead researcher, Dr. Adrian Owen, explained that they start by asking the patient to imagine two different scenarios – playing tennis versus walking around his house – which produce activity in different parts of the brain. Using one scenario for yes and the other for no, the researchers began with simple questions with known answers – “Is the sky blue?” – to test the patient’s ability to answer.
By this method, they believe Scott knows who and where he is. The breakthrough, from Dr. Owen’s perspective, is the ability to ask questions that they have no way of knowing the answer to: “Are you in pain?” To which Scott said “No.” The next step according to the doctor is to ask about other facets of his care: What kind of entertainment would he like? When does he want his food? Details that up until now Scott has been unable to control.
Being able to communicate with someone for the first time in more than 10 years must be profoundly exciting for Soctt’s family and friends. After being told that he would never be able to communicate again, suddenly they have been given a window into his world. Despite his major physical disabilities, he has regained his voice.
Before my son was born with a disability, I didn’t think a lot about scientific research like this. I’d hear about this breakthrough and that groundbreaking discovery, but it didn’t affect me one way or another.
After Deane was born, I realized the value of this work. Each one of these breakthroughs moves us closer to improving the quality of life for people with disabilities or diseases. They may not be the cures we’re all hoping and praying for, but the painstaking work is moving us in the right direction.
The fMRI scans of brain action, while exciting, do not allow for routine, daily conversation. It is still quite cumbersome. The patient needs to taken to the scanner which involves many technical complications. Dr. Owen says the true breakthrough will be when patients like Scott can communicate through the use of an EEG or electroencephalogram – a system that attaches wires to a person’s head to measure electrical activity in the brain. They are currently used to study seizures, dementia or sleep disorders and can be done outside a hospital.
As much as I wish Deane did not have a disability, I am thankful that he was born in an era that has touch-screen communication devices, power wheelchairs and medical researchers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of our understanding.
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