In the first of a new series of Frontiers, Peter Evans discusses new research into vegetative state.Scientists at Cambridge University recently published a paper suggesting that there were "islands" of brain function in the brain of a patient in a vegetative state. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, the researchers have shown that the patient's brain apparently responded to spoken instructions.
In one dramatic example, the woman was asked to imagine a game of tennis, and scientists were able to detect significant activity in the motor areas of her brain.
Peter Evans discusses the research with two of its authors: researcher Adrian Owen and clinician John Pickard. Peter also talks to Keith Andrews, Director of the Institute of Neuropalliative Care at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability.
The wider question behind this research relates to our understanding of consciousness. Can we reasonably say that the 'islands' of brain function discovered by the researchers at Cambridge mean that this particular patient was demonstrating 'conscious awareness'?
Peter discusses this point with John Saunders, who chairs the Royal College of Physicians' Ethical Issues in Medicine Committee, and Adam Zeman, Professor of Cognitive and Behavioural Neurology at Peninsula Medical School, Exeter.
Peter also talks to Martin Coleman, who works at Cambridge University's Impaired Consciousness Group. Part of Martin's work is to develop 'brain-computer interfaces', a technology that might help people to communicate, using only their brain waves.