LONDON, Ontario, December 13, 2011 ( – Family members and friends of a loved one who is locked in a vegetative state (VS) and deemed by medical professionals to be awake but not aware now have recourse to a new brainwave-reading technology that may tell a story different from the doctor’s diagnosis.

Researchers from the Brain and Mind Institute at The University of Western Ontario last Wednesday unveiled a portable electroencephalography (EEG) machine that can simply and cost-effectively assess the consciousness of VS patients in their own bedroom.

Damian Cruse, lead writer for the research team, says that the new brainwave scanning technology is relatively cheap, portable, and widely available.


“This means that we can now go out into the community and visit patients in their residential care homes or hospitals and provide a more accurate diagnosis than was previously possible,” he said in a press release.

The team of researchers found that despite rigorous clinical assessment, up to 43% of VS patients have been misclassified.

Adrian Owen, one of the team’s members who is a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at Western’s Centre for Brain and Mind, has recently proved that a significant minority of “vegetative” patients are in fact consciously aware and, in some cases, can even communicate with the outside world using brain-imaging technologies.

“It’s astonishing,” said Owen in a press release. “In some of these cases, patients who seemed to be entirely unresponsive to the outside world, were able to signal that they were, in fact, conscious by changing their patterns of brain activity – sometimes hundreds of times.”

The team’s findings, which appeared in The Lancet last Wednesday, revealed that 19% of a group of entirely unresponsive VS patients were in fact aware and able to generate the appropriate mind-activity in response to various commands – mind-activity that the EEG showed to be comparable to healthy persons when they were given the same commands.

“This is good news,” said Ted Furton, staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia

“I hope the research of Mr. Cruse helps to overcome some of the prejudice against these patients. Dr. Owen, of course, deserves hearty congratulations for his own pioneering work in this area,” he told (LSN).

Furton would like to see the medical community “assume” that every patient in a VS condition is “indeed cognitively aware” and that the “onus of proof should rest with those who contend otherwise.”

Bobby Schindler, brother of the late Terri Schiavo who fought to save his sister diagnosed as PVS from a 2005 court-ordered death sentence by starvation and dehydration, told LSN that brain-imaging technology has “validated the extremely biased, unscientific and dangerous PVS diagnosis.”

Schindler, Executive Director of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network that works to protect the medically vulnerable and disabled from the threat of euthanasia, would like to see the diagnosis “eliminated” that classifies someone to be a permanent vegetative state (PVS).

“PVS diagnosis … needs to be eliminated, in particular when it is being used as a criteria to kill those with cognitive disabilities, as it was done in Terri’s case,” he said.

For now, the researches from the Brain and Mind Institute have set the sky as the limit as they hope to push the brainwave-reading technologies in the direction of one day allowing VS patients to communicate their hidden interior lives to those in the world outside themselves.