Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Can You Hear Me?

Researchers in the United Kingdom and Belgium have hit upon a way to use Magnetic Resonance Imaging to find out if someone who appears to be in a permanent vegetative state is conscious and aware of what's going on around them. The idea seems remarkably simple (even if the technology to implement it is not). Because thinking about different things lights up different parts of your brain, the researchers ask yes or no questions, after instructing the patient to think about one thing for yes, and another for no. Then they use the MRI to "read" the answers. Once they get this locked down, it could really help doctors with determining who's a vegetable, and who's not, more accurately than they can now.

As with all medical advances, this one has it's ethical concerns, but this is one that I hadn't really thought about:

[...F]or example - it is lawful to allow patients in a permanent vegetative state to die by withdrawing all treatment, but if a patient showed they could respond it would not be, even if they made it clear that was what they wanted.
Which raises an interesting question - could you, via a living will, opt out of the test if it becomes widely used? I suspect that I'd find it much worse to be locked into a completely non-functioning body, and if an MRI test could mean being kept alive for years on life support, I don't know that I'd want one. But that's a question for another day. (To be honest, I foresee a fight there, and it's not one that I relish having.)

In the meantime, here's to hoping that on the heels of this medical breakthrough comes another, perhaps one that would restore the pseudo-vegetative to some function and ability to interact with the outside world. Part of me sees such a thing as pie in the sky - a forlorn hope born of a level of frustration with the sheer unfairness of it all. (Even though I intellectually understand that fairness has nothing to do with it, the wish for happier endings dies hard. While the therapist in me has learned to be somewhat cold-hearted, the friend in me cries along with the wounded and suffers for being unable to make them whole again.) But were it not for people chasing what others have considered pie in the sky, we'd likely be nowhere near as far along as we are.

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