A team of researchers from the University of Birmingham, led by Dr. Davinia Fernández-Espejo has brought more insight on patients in vegetative state that are still aware of their surroundings despite their inability to move. They have found that the obstacle between awareness and movement appears in patients in vegetative state that have structural damages made between the primary motor cortex, which is responsible for all intentional movement and the thalamus, which beside other roles, is responsible for transmitting sensory and motor signals to the cerebral cortex.
According to Dr. Davinia Fernández-Espejo, “a number of patients who appear to be in a vegetative state are actually aware of themselves and their surroundings, able to comprehend the world around them, create memories and imagine events as with any other person.”
By relying on this information, they have begun their study on a patient that has been in a vegetative state for 12 years, but showed constant signs of awareness during different types of examination. The study also included a patient with similar variables that was capable of intentional movements and a control group made up by 15 healthy people. All of them were examined by using fiber tractography and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). By using keywords such as “move”, participants had to think about accomplishing a command, which was raising their hand. Their brain activity was measured and also the integrity of their pathways, mostly those between the thalamus and the primary motor cortex.
The patient in vegetative state, showed brain activity and that is how researchers were able to discover a fundamental fact in how movement is affected in patients that are still consciously aware. Dr. Fernández-Espejo believes this to be a small step to understanding patients in vegetative state and how various therapies could provide them some movement. Even a small movement of a finger could change the way a patient could communicate with the outside world he is so aware of. It might take years until a proper therapy can be developed for these patients, but small discoveries like this, mean a lot for them.