"Distressing" is not an adequate word to describe a study by Cambridge University neuroscientist Adrian M. Owen that proves that many people in supposedly vegetative states actually are quite aware of what is happening around them and have opinions and views about it all. There may be thousands of such people in the U.S. alone.
The implications are hard to bear and yet demand action. Can you imagine anything much worse than being completely unable to communicate with others and yet affected by them? Anyone who has suffered an injury that impairs even a small function knows how frustrating that can be. But this is almost like being buried alive. With this difference: the patient is aware of people's conversations and can, at least in his mind, respond. But no one in the presence of such a person--until now--has found a way to "listen" and therefore to converse.
This study adds force to the anti-euthanasia arguments made in cases like that of Terri Schiavo. It also calls in the name of human compassion for greater efforts to engage such conscious minds encased in unresponsive bodies and to give their lives some scope for vigorous interaction. It also calls for greater scientific and technological efforts to break the physical chains binding such people.
A colleague of Dr. Owens sees a number of immediate practical uses of the new way of communicating with conscious, but immobilized persons. "This technique could be used to address important clinical questions. For example, patients who are aware, but cannot move or speak, could be asked if they are feeling any pain, allowing doctors to decide when painkillers should be administered."
But another urgent need is to find ways to communicate more directly than is possible now. In their study, the Cambridge team used MRI technology, which is expensive and obviously hard to arrange on any regular basis.