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Levels of awareness found in people in a vegetative state

Getting older brings many new worries about changing life styles and also our health.

But one thing that many older people say they dread is going into a vegetative state yet still being conscious. The catastrophic brain injuries that can lead to this condition can be caused from accidents such as car crashes or from certain health problems such as major heart attacks, stroke or even Alzheimer’s.

It is a totally terrifying scenario; lying there being unable to move or communicate; yet understanding everything that is going on.

Now new research from a team of scientists at Cambridge University has confirmed our worst fears - that there may be a glimmer of consciousness in people who appear to be in a totally vegetative state.

Generally, doctors consider that people in a vegetative state are unaware of the world around them although they appear to be awake. The latest investigations involved mapping the electrical activity of nerves after a mesh of electrodes were applied to the heads of a number of patients in a vegetative state. Their electrical patterns and connections were compared with those of health volunteers and four out of 13 patients demonstrated an electrical signature similar to those in the healthy group.

The research was led by Dr Srivas Chennu who is Senior Research Associate in the university’s Department of Clinical Neursosciences. He is part of an impaired consciousness research group, working on developing the use of EEG (Electroencephalography) and BCI (Brain Computer Interfaces) for assessing and assisting patients in vegetative and minimally conscious states and is being funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

He said that the research so far was suggesting some of the brain networks that support consciousness in healthy adults may be well-preserved in a number of people in a persistent vegetative state too.

A second stage of the investigation involved MRI scanning and this came up with similar findings.

The control group was a very small number but nevertheless the team hope that their work will help to identify people who are actually conscious but physically unable to communicate from those who are in a totally vegetative state.

It will certainly be useful for relatives and health care workers who are involved with patients in a vegetative state.

More information is available on www.nhs.uk/conditions/Vegetative-state/Pages/Introduction.aspx

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