Scientists in the U.K. used real-time MRIs to communicate with patients previously thought to be in a completely vegetative state.
The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, which provides a picture of brain activity in real time. Patients were asked to think a certain way in response to questions about their life. Using this technique, one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine claimed that it was possible to communicate with 4 patients out of 23 who were diagnosed to be in a vegetative state.
We've all heard horrible stories of people in car accidents, or otherwise seriously brain damaged, who enter a coma. They are effectively asleep, and can last that way for several weeks and sometimes years. It's possible, however, for such a patient to advance to a vegetative state, which is only slightly more awake. Their bodies still function enough to maintain life, but they are completely unresponsive to stimuli because of the severe damage to their brains.
The researchers have shown that at least some of these people are aware of their surroundings enough to communicate. When asked questions, the patients were told to think about playing tennis, which stimulates the motor cortex if they wanted to answer "yes" and to imagine a spatial activity, like walking on the street, in order to answer "no."
While the implications of this study are far-reaching and can impact the ethics of euthanasia, as well as open the doors to more research into how our brain functions, I had a much more visceral response.
This study implies that these people are awake and trapped in their dysfunctional bodies.