Do Patients in a Vegetative State Recognize Loved Ones?

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A person in a vegetative state suffers from a disorder where severe brain damage caused by trauma confines them to a partial state of awareness. Most patients in persistent vegetative states use a feeding tube but usually, do not need any other life-supporting equipment. The main dispute among researchers is just how aware the vegetative patients are, whether they are partially conscious, or in more of a dreamlike state.

Is Recovery Possible?

Brain death and persistent vegetative state have similarities but they are not the same. Brain death is dependent on the death of the brain stem and therefore it is equal to death. A persistent vegetative state suggests a complete and permanent loss of forebrain function, not the function of the brain stem. It is diagnosed once a patient has been in a vegetative state for longer than a period of 1 month. This condition is very rare and is often due to a traumatic brain injury. Although it is very rare for a person’s condition to improve, it is possible. This improvement will not likely be drastic but some bodily functions can be reestablished. For this reason, PVS is not considered a permanent disability. Affected patients may be able to reach a more conscious state of being.

Treatment Options

Currently, there is no cure or treatment available to reverse the suffering patient’s condition completely. Medications can bring on signs of improvement but supportive care is the main treatment option available. Supportive care can include the following:

  • Providing proper nutrition
  • Preventing ailments caused by being immobile for an extended period of time (urinary tract infections, pneumonia, etc.)
  • Providing physical therapy to prevent permanent muscle contracture
  • Preventing pressure ulcers

Conscious Awareness

Being trapped in your own body may be a petrifying idea to most but that is a possible reality to some vegetative patients. Researchers have discovered that some patients, though not all, have revealed a certain degree of consciousness. Some patients with brain damage have been put through certain response testing. The results of this testing is not a definitive answer to the question of the patients’ consciousness. However, the results show that, when asked to focus on their responses, patients can respond to external stimuli through a scanner measuring their brain’s activity. During questioning patients’ brain shows activity that suggests they have some understanding of their surroundings. For example, researchers may ask the patients specific questions:

  • Are you in a hospital?
  • Are you in a supermarket?
  • Is your name Scott?
  • Is your name Steven?
  • Is your name Mike?

Then the researchers displayed the words “yes” and “no”, directing the patients to pay close attention to the correct responses. The scanner being used showed that some patients are quite aware of what is happening even without being able to respond or function properly.

Do Patients in a Vegetative State Recognize Their Loved Ones?

Can a person in a vegetative state hear you? Because communication is not possible, a vegetative person’s loved ones may be stuck wondering whether or not the patient even knows they are there. Through the use of fMRI, researchers have shown that the brains of patients in a vegetative state reveal activity in response to seeing images of their friends and family. This research suggests that they can also hear. Testing proves that at least some, though not all, vegetative patients are aware of their surroundings and outside activity.

What Does This Mean For The Future?

Research centered around patients’ emotional awareness has only been ongoing for a few years now. Many states in the United States, as well as some other countries, do not support options relating to euthanasia or suicide. It is possible that patients in a persistent vegetative state may be able to, in a way, have more say in what route of care they receive. It may be possible to ask patients questions concerning their care, however, laws make facing these circumstances difficult. Researchers are currently working to find a better, less complex process for testing the conscious activity of PVS patients. A breakthrough could mean all the difference in a vegetative patient’s future.

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