An MRI scanner
Imagine this: You’ve volunteered for a brain imaging experiment to help study consciousness. You come to the MRI suite, and lie down. The researchers put an IV drip in place, and then infuse a form of glucose that “lights up” the brain areas that are activated at any given moment. So far so good.
You’re told to close your eyes and imagine hitting a tennis ball back and forth with a partner. Sure enough, this consistently activates an area related to preparing the brain for motor activity (called the Supplementary Motor Area, SMA, in yellow below). Then you’re asked to imagine walking around your house, and to visualise all the things you’d see as you navigated like this. And once again, the corresponding area, called the Parahippocampal Gyrus, (PG, in green below) lights up. Here’s roughly what the images look like:
Nothing unusual or unexpected here. But now let’s go a bit further with the technique.
Let’s now take a series of patients (54 to be exact) who have been diagnosed with either vegetative state (remember – that’s eye opening without any signs of conscious interaction with the environment) or a minimally conscious state (awake, but with fluctuating but consistent signs of consciousness), and let’s try the same experiment.
Incredibly, FIVE of these patients (10%!) could manipulate brain activity in response to the researchers’ requests. These people were, in fact, obeying commands (“think about tennis”, “think about navigating”), but their response wasn’t behavioural, it was . . . metabolic; what’s crucial is that they clearly showed signs of consciousness.
This was an amazing finding, but the investigators took the work further still, and, using a very ingenious trick, what they revealed shocked the world of medicine.
Let’s quickly put you back into the fMRI machine. This time, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to ask you a simple, unambiguous question (like, do you have a brother?). I’m going to tell you to think “tennis” for YES, think “navigation” for NO. (Rather like using fMRI activation as a “blink once for yes, twice for no” kind of communication tool.) Turns out this works fine, with 100% accuracy with normal subjects.
I guess you see where I’m going with this. Let’s take one of the patients diagnosed as vegetative but who has shown the ability to “light up” his or her supplemental motor area or parahippocampal gyrus on demand. Let’s do the same thing with him. Let’s ask him or her questions – tennis if yes, navigation if no. What happens? Let me quote the researchers: “. . . for those five questions, the pattern (of activation) produced ALWAYS matched the factually correct answer.”
I’ll let that soak in for a moment.
These scientists just took a patient who’d been diagnosed as vegetative (and again, I’ll insist that this means NO CONSCIOUSNESS) and not only TALKED TO HIM, but actually got answers!
What are the implications? First of all, this study shows how hard it actually is to make a proper diagnosis of the vegetative state. Until now, this diagnosis relied on confidently stating that there is evidence of absence of consciousness, based on detailed and lengthy observation of the patient’s behavioural responses. But remember, these patients have severely damaged brains; the behavioural repertory of responses that they can show may often be so limited that none will be found. But this study emphasises that absence of (behavioural) evidence is NOT necessarily evidence of absence (of consciousness). The infinitely more sensitive “behavioural” response of metabolic brain activation could allow, in the future, clinicians to make this diagnosis with much more confidence. This obviously has enormous implications in terms of medical and ethical decision-making as concerns any given patient.
More importantly for us, this tool would appear to open up the possibility of actually communicating with some of these patients (a small minority at best, but still . . .). The current procedure is much too cumbersome, difficult, and expensive to use routinely, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a future where helmet-sized mini-MRI machines are placed on the heads of patients with prolonged disorders of consciousness to allow their care team and loved ones to communicate with them.
There is a huge amount of fascinating and useful research being done on consciousness – both normal and disordered. Functional imaging is one of the most powerful tools in this quest for knowledge. As they say, watch this space.
Here’s a link to the original NY Times article about this research. The second contains a video by Liege’s own Steve Laureys (the lead researcher), explaining the technique. And the third is to a pdf of the original article, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.