‘Comatose,’ ‘vegetative’ patients often awake and somewhat aware

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A police officer who was shot through the head and declared all but brain dead is slowly but surely regaining cognitive function, and functional MRI is playing a role in his recovery.

Cpl. Nick Tullier’s story is told in a compelling Houston Chronicle multimedia package on advances in medicine’s understanding of awareness in unresponsive head-trauma patients.

The lead article follows Tullier’s treatment at TIRR Memorial Hermann rehab facility in Houston, where physiatrist Sunil Kothari, MD, established a center for treating disorders of consciousness three years ago.

The reporter, Mike Hixenbaugh, folds in other patient stories, fleshes out the latest research and presents his sprawling, important material so absorbingly that his work could draw consideration for a Pulitzer.

Hixenbaugh writes:

“Experts now believe a staggering number of these patients—more than 40 percent, according to some estimates—are covertly aware, in what scientists have dubbed the ‘minimally conscious state.’ They are trapped inside themselves, mislabeled by physicians untrained in identifying subtle signs of consciousness and cut off from therapy by insurance companies unwilling to cover people seemingly damaged beyond repair. Some never even make it out of the intensive care unit, where doctors and nurses too often prod families to withdraw life support, apparently unaware of the brain's ability to heal and rewire itself over the course of months and even years.”

And:

“In September, a team of Harvard researchers announced it had built on [an earlier] discovery, using an fMRI machine to detect signs of consciousness in four brain-injured patients while they were still recovering in the intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, including three previously labeled vegetative. Based on the brain activity found using the scanner, the researchers declared, those patients would now be more likely to be referred for rehab rather than hospice.”

The package features videos and superb photojournalism too.

Read and see: