Questioning consciousness: Can doctors ‘talk’ to vegetative patients using fMRI?

Recent research involving vegetative patients is revealing the thin line between consciousness and unconsciousness inside the human brain—and the difference in care for those teetering in the gray area.

“Patients…are routinely misdiagnosed and placed in what we euphemistically call ‘custodial care’ where they have no access to any treatments that might help them recover or give them a chance of engaging with others,” Joseph Fins, chief of the division of medical ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, told Newsweek. “Far too many cases are based on a rush to judgment that assumes that loss of consciousness signals the end of life when it can also be the first sign of recovery.”

Fins interviewed more than 50 patients and their families who he says were written off based on premature decisions made by doctors and loved ones who were eventually able to communicate with doctors through fMRI and other advanced imaging techniques.

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