by Hilary White

CAMBRIDGE, September 8, 2006 ( – More and more, ethicists and doctors are questioning the diagnosis of “persistent vegetative state,” and new research is opening the discussion. Researchers working at Cambridge University in England reported in a study published in the journal Science that a woman who was described as being in a “vegetative state” is showing signs of conscious awareness while remaining in the comatose condition.

The study, led by Dr. Adrian Owen at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge, compared neurological responses to verbal stimuli in the comatose patient with those of conscious volunteers. It showed that the patient’s brain responded to commands in the same brain centres and in the same way normally associated with consciousness such as language and planning regions.

“If you put her scans together with the other 12 volunteers tested you cannot tell which is the patient’s,” Owen told The New York Times.

“I was absolutely stunned” by the results, Owen said.

The researchers asked the woman to imagine playing tennis, or walking through her house, they saw peaks in the premotor and other areas of her brain that mimicked those of healthy volunteers

He commented that the results, “confirm that, despite the 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.”

“Her decision to work with us by imagining particular tasks when asked represents a clear act of intent, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings,” Owen added.

The diagnosis of PVS has been under scrutiny among doctors and disability rights groups recently because of its vagueness and the distressing tendency of patients in the condition to wake up unexpectedly. The discovery has had broad media exposure and many are speculating that the new research will alter the way PVS patients are treated and the understanding of the unconscious condition itself.

Dr. Owen said, “It also tells us that she is able to perform simple tasks in her head, such as imagining certain scenarios. We see this as a proof of principle: we have found a way to show that a patient is aware when existing clinical methods have been unable to provide that information.”

The PVS diagnosis has been especially criticized since the court ordered dehydration death of Terri Schindler Schiavo. PVS and its related diagnosis, a “minimally conscious state” (MCS), is commonly used to justify the removal of artificial nutrition and hydration and has added fuel to the euthanasia and assisted suicide movement.

In 2005, because of growing concerns about inaccurate diagnosis, the disability rights organization, Not Dead Yet, called for a moratorium on the removal of artificial nutrition and hydration based on a PVS diagnosis.

Read related coverage:
Disability Activists Call for Moratorium on Starvation and Dehydration

Coma Recovery After 19 Years Poses Questions About Terri Schiavo