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February 4, 2010

Too late for Terri, but still encouraging news

The Wall Street Journal reports today on a medical study that, if its findings are true, suggests the possibility that Terri Schiavo was aware of her husband’s unrelenting quest to have her put to death by starvation and dehydration five years ago.
In a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, four of 23 patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state showed signs of consciousness on brain-imaging tests.

Even more significantly, one patient was able to answer yes and no questions using the researchers' technique—indicating the potential for communication with people previously considered unresponsive.

Researchers at two centers, in England and Belgium, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests on 54 patients with severe brain injury. Of these patients, 31 were diagnosed as being in a minimally conscious state, meaning they showed intermittent signs of awareness such as laughing or crying. The other 23 were diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, meaning they were considered unresponsive and unaware of their surroundings.

The study is part of a growing body of work changing how people think about the vegetative state. "There has been a kind of nihilism towards these patients. This represents a cultural shift," says Joseph J. Fins, chief of the medical-ethics division at Weill Cornell Medical College, New York.

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