By Peter J. Smith

ROME, September 15, 2006 ( – A new case-study raises more doubts about the ethical determination of “brain-death”, since researchers discovered that a patient suffering from a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) demonstrated similar brain activity to healthy conscious individuals according to Zenit news.

Under the leadership of neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen, the team of scientists from Cambridge University and the Belgian University of Liège applied MRI technology to discover that the brain activity of a PVS patient indicated she was “consciously aware of herself and her surroundings.”

In their experiment, the researchers gave oral commands to a 23-year-old comatose Englishwoman, who fulfilled all the requirements of a “persistent vegetative state”, while they measured her brain activity with an MRI scanner.

According to the researchers, the woman showed increased activity in speech comprehension centers in her brain while researchers spoke to her, indicating comprehension. When the researchers asked her to imagine herself playing tennis and walking through the rooms of her home, the imaging screen showed activity in the woman’s brain areas governing visual-spatial and motor functions: all patterns similarly observed in healthy volunteers.

In their report, Dr. Owen and his scientists wrote, “Despite fulfilling the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of vegetative state, this patient retained the ability to understand spoken commands and to respond to them through her brain activity, rather than through speech or movement.”

“Moreover, her decision to cooperate with the authors by imagining particular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear act of intention, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings,” they stated in the September 8 issue of Science.

Zenit reports that Fr. Gonzalo Miranda, LC, a bioethics professor at the Regina Apostolorum University in Rome, believes this is the first time scientists have delved into the inner workings of a person’s brain activity.

“Until now,” he said, “we only had a few tests about the responsiveness of a person in this state which were limited to exterior observations—things or gestures a person could do or not.”

“These studies have confirmed something I’ve upheld for years now: that a person in a vegetative state is not dead,” added Fr. Miranda. “They are a person living in a bad state, but they are a person, so we must respect them.”

The recent case-study significantly bolsters the argument of opponents of the “brain-death” criterion for organ donation, who fear that severely brain-injured patients are seen more and more as living organ farms than as persons needing care and attention. Hospitals frequently have invoked “brain death” to justify harvesting organs ever since organ donation and transplantation became a multi-billion dollar industry beginning with the first successful organ transplants and the development of immunosuppressant drugs in the late 1950s.