The New York Times reports:
A severely brain-damaged woman in an unresponsive, vegetative state showed clear signs on brain imaging tests that she was aware of herself and her surroundings, researchers are reporting today, in a finding that could have far-reaching consequences for how unconscious patients are cared for and how their conditions are diagnosed.
In response to commands, the patient’s brain flared with activity, lighting the same language and movement-planning regions that are active when healthy people hear the commands. Previous studies had found similar activity in partly conscious patients, who occasionally respond to commands, but never before in someone who was totally unresponsive.
Neurologists cautioned that the new report characterized only a single, perhaps unique case and that it did not mean that unresponsive brain-damaged people were more likely to recover or that treatment was possible. The woman in the study could not communicate with the researchers, and there was no way to know whether her subjective experience was anything like what healthy people call consciousness. The woman was injured in a traffic accident in England last year.
Yet the study so drastically contradicted the woman’s diagnosed condition that it exposed the limitations of standard methods of bedside diagnosis.…