Communicating with patients in a vegetative state


It is an extraordinary moment when Dr. Adrian Owen slides his patient into an FMRI machine, a man who has been in a vegetative state for a dozen years, suddenly able to communicate basic information with thoughts that register as activity in a brain scan. Adrian Owen has found a way to connect with some patients for whom that had been little hope of ever communicating again. Today, our project Line in the Sand looks at the implications of his discovery for everything from our treatment of traditionally unresponsive patients to end of life care.

Communicating with patients in a vegetative state - Panel

"Okay, we're going to ask you to imagine playing tennis quite a few times while you're in the scanner. And if you can do that then we'll be able to see your brain activating. All right, so we're going to put you in the scanner now. Just do your best."

Dr. Adrian Owen doesn't typically assess his patients by asking them to use their imaginations. But in this case, it may have been a breakthrough. Dr. Owen is a neuroscientist at Western University in London, Ontario.

His patient, Scott Routley, has been in a vegetative state for 12 years following a car accident. He's unable to talk -- it wasn't even clear if Scott Routley had any thoughts. But Dr. Owen believed it might be possible to communicate with Mr. Routley if he could read the man's mind.

And so Scott Routley was placed in an Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine, or FMRI, and asked to concentrate on the game of tennis. That led Dr. Owen to demonstrate for the first time that it's possible to communicate with a person in a vegetative state by using brain scanning technology-- and even ask how they feel.

This discovery raises ethical issues about how we treat people who can't tell us how they feel. And so, as part of our project Line in the Sand, we're joined first by Dr. Adrian Owen. He is a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Neuroscience and Imaging at Western University's Brain and Mind Institution. He was in London, Ontario.

And Kerry Bowman is a bioethicist at the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics who specializes in end-of-life care.

This segment was produced by The Current's Gord Westmacott.

Other segment from today's show:

ORNGE Helicopter Investigation: Kevin Donovan

Checking-In: Listener Response

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