It's the stuff of nightmares: being trapped in your body unable to move or speak, yet fully aware of everything that's happening around you.
Writer of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, described such a horror in his terrifying 1844 story, "The Premature Burial." Now researchers have found a frightening corollary with the premise of that story and some coma patients.
Researchers in Canada, seeking to confirm a long suspected belief that at least some people in comas are cognizant of their environment and events transpiring around them, used an old off-the-shelf technology to discover the answer.
Results confirm worst fears
The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor comatose patients brainwaves—patients that medical professionals had long thought were in an unaware, vegetative condition.
Dr. Steven Laureys, head of the Coma Science Group at the Cyclotron Research Center and Department of Neurology, Sart Tilman Liège University Hospital, worked with Professor Adrian M. Owen and Dr. Damian Cruse, at the University of Western Ontario Center for Brain and Mind in London, Canada. Together the three conducted a study on 16 comatose patients. They compared the EEGs of the people in comas with a group of 12 people with normal brain activity.
The study revealed that some remain aware even if in deep comas, confirming the fear of some doctors and relatives of patients that have often contended that their loved ones do seem aware even if they outwardly are unresponsive.
The results, while suspected, were nevertheless shocking. The EEGs on the 16 comatose patients confirmed that three exhibited responsive brainwave activity to stimuli, the exact same response shown by the healthy control group.
The researchers were forced to conclude from the irrefutable data that comatose victims are aware of what happens around them: they're fully cognizant of what's occurring even though they're in a state of virtual paralysis, unable to react with physically or verbally.
It's a nightmare scenario that one doctor admitted made some in comas like the living dead. The true horror lies in the fact that some coma patients are fully aware their minds are entombed in bodies they cannot control. Trapped, unable to escape, they may persist in this living death for years. Some cases can stretch into decades.
Although a much more expensive MRI test can be performed on comatose patients, because of the cost and preparation it is rarely employed. The authors of the study were able to show that an EEG can also detect if a patient's brain is aware.
From the study: "Our findings show that this EEG method can identify covert awareness in patients diagnosed in the vegetative state with a similar degree of accuracy to other methods of detection; it is a considerably cheaper and more portable bedside technique…this method could reach all vegetative patients and fundamentally change their bedside assessment."
The entire study, "Brain function in coma, vegetative state, and related disorders," is available at Online First by the Lancet.
Bedside detection of awareness in the vegetative state: a cohort study
EEG shows awareness in some vegetative patients
EEG can detect awareness in people previously thought to be in permanently vegetative state