Melbourne, June 19 : A British researcher claims that he has devised a way to communicate with people who, though can't move their limbs, are consciously aware. While making a presentation at the Organisation for Human Brain Mapping Conference, Dr. Martin Monti of the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Science Unit in Cambridge said that his work might have implications for the medical diagnosis of people in a vegetative state, and for determining whether to discontinue feeding.
He said that his research followed a 2006 study, published that time in the journal Science, which suggested that brain scans of a woman who had been in a vegetative state for five months showed her imagining playing tennis, and responding to commands.
Dr. Monti said that it might be possible to establish communication just by reading the brain of a patient.
"This takes no training whatsoever (on the part of the patient), and could be used in the clinical setting as a tool to both probe for consciousness and, when detected, to establish communication. Literally we may be giving back, even though at present just to say yes-no, the voice to patients that would otherwise be unable to communicate entirely," ABC Online quoted him as saying.
During the course of study, Dr. Monti and his colleagues analysed brain activity in 16 healthy volunteers with the aid of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.
The researcher first asked the subjects to imagine playing tennis, and then to imagine navigating through an area they knew well, such as their home or a street.
The two tasks, says Dr. Monti, were known to activate different brain regions, which could be monitored using the fMRI.
According to him, each of the participants was asked three questions, to which they had to respond by imagining playing tennis (signifying a yes), or by imagining they were navigating (signifying a no).
"We were looking at the scan in real time as the participant was imagining their response and we were seeing in real time the different parts of the brain getting active or inactive," he said.
Dr. Monti said that the study had a 100 per cent success rate in determining the right answer.
He said that the research might help, in the long term, reconnect patients with their families.
It might also be helpful in providing a solution to legal battles over whether to discontinue feeding a patient.
"There will be a lot of ramifications from this technology. The medical system needs to understand how to use it and at some point we have to look at the ethical and legal ramifications," he said.
"If you had a patient (in a coma-like state) who you could reliably see they do not want to live, how would you react to that?" he added.