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When doctors suspect that a patient might be in a “vegetative” state following a serious brain injury, they run a plethora of tests to confirm the diagnosis. These usually consist of asking patients questions about their environment, and all are aimed at determining their level of consciousness.”Looking at brain activity just isn’t the standard of care,” says Lorina Naci, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario, in Canada. “And unfortunately patients with brain injuries are notoriously bad at answering questions,” so doctors sometimes miss clues that they might have seen if they had used other methods. Naci and her team came up with a test that combined an Alfred Hitchcock TV show with an fMRI machine and it just showed a patient with an unknown levels of consciousness was in fact capable of understanding the events happening around him — even though his initial injury had taken place over 16 years ago, and he had been unresponsive since then. In the study, Naci and her colleagues showed an eight-minute edit of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Bang! You’re dead” — a video that’s considered suspenseful and engaging — to 12 healthy participants, while monitoring their brain activity using an fMRI machine. Then, they repeated this experiment with two unconscious patients who had retained the ability to hold their eyes open for long periods of time. “All the healthy patients showed synchronized brain activity in the brain regions that are … used as a proxy for awareness,” Naci says. And so did the unresponsive male patient.

The results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Russell Poldrack, a cognitive neuroscientist at Stanford University who didn’t participate the study, comments that the main takeaway of this study is that there may be “big differences in the mental function of people who are labeled as ‘vegetative.’’”( ack: the Verge)

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