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Brain Scans Show Increased Activity During Story-Telling In Patients With Severe Brain Injuries
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
February 9, 2005

NEW YORK, NEW YORK--New technology may be revealing what many advocates already knew: People who have severe brain injuries are not necessarily "brain dead".

In an important study published in this week's edition of the journal Neurology, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain activity of two men considered to be in "minimally conscious state" (MCS) as a result of brain injuries, along with seven volunteers who had no brain injuries.

The scientists noted that, while the resting brain activity for the two men was almost non-existent, when researchers played audio tapes of loved ones telling familiar stories and talking about shared experiences from the past, the brain activity of the two men jumped up to the same level as that of the subjects that had no brain injuries.

"We assumed we would get some minimal response in these patients, but nothing like this," said the study's lead author Dr. Nicholas Schiff, an assistant professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College.

The researchers also noticed that when the sequences of the stories were reversed, and therefore had no particular meaning to the men, their brain activity dropped again.

The study suggests that people with such disabilities are aware of their surroundings and can hear what is going on around them -- even though they may not be able to respond.

The authors noted that, because the sample group was so small, more research needs to be done to determine whether the results can be duplicated with other similar patients. Still, this study could have serious implications for the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Americans diagnosed with MCS.

"This study gave me goose bumps, because it shows this possibility of this profound isolation, that these people are there, that they've been there all along, even though we've been treating them as if they're not," Dr. Joseph Fins, chief of the medical ethics division of New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center, told the New York Times.

Related:
"Signs of Awareness Seen in Brain-Injured Patients" (New York Times)

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/08/science/08coma.html
Abstract of study "MRI reveals large-scale network activation in minimally conscious patients" (Neurology)
http://www.neurology.org/cgi/content/abstract/64/3/514

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