A new study could have a life-changing impact on patients thought to be in a “vegetative” state: Three such patients displayed signs of full consciousness in a simple test. “It sure looks as if there’s not just a little bit of consciousness but a lot” in these subjects, who had previously been deemed unresponsive, says a neuropsychologist who was not involved in the study. Sixteen supposedly “vegetative” patients were asked to imagine forming a fist or wiggling their toes when they heard a beep, and the brain activity for three of them showed “responses that were identical to healthy volunteers,” says the lead researcher.
The method used to measure brain waves, an electroencephalogram machine or EEG, is less expensive and more easily accessible than an MRI scanner, the New York Times notes. The EEG test could also be more accurate than the standard tests used to detect consciousness, like analyzing twitches or blinks in response to questions. “I think it’s a strong sign of our inability to correctly diagnose people in the vegetative state,” says the co-author. If the results from this research are replicated, the study concludes, an EEG test could eventually “enable routine, two-way communication with some of these patients, allowing them to share information about their inner world, experiences, and needs.” (Read more vegetative state stories.)