For 12 years his inert body had lain there: Scott Routley had been totally unresponsive after a serious car accident in 1999. Throughout this time, his parents, Anne and Jim, remained convinced that Scott was conscious and aware of them and his surroundings.
Where that faith – it is faith, isn’t it? – comes from is hard to know, but tales of people who are convinced that their loved one is “in there somewhere” are common.
But how can you be sure? How can such a person be reached? You play their favorite music and read to them for hours, all the while wondering if you are just fooling yourself. Is it just wishful thinking, this drive not to give up on this person who once filled your life with their aliveness?
Adrian Owen is a British neuroscientist who has made it his life mission to find a way to communicate with patients in a so-called persistent vegetative state. He uses hospital brain scanners to test if patients in vegetative states are in fact conscious.
He writes in the Daily Mail that when he showed his “vegetative” patient, Kate, photos of her family as she lay inside a brain-scanning machine, a part of her brain called the fusiform gyrus, associated with facial recognition, lit up.
Owen and his research fellow also asked Carol to communicate with them while she was in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI), a machine that shows which parts of the brain are active by detecting those that are using most oxygen.
They asked Carol to imagine playing tennis and then something amazing happened.
“Whenever we asked Carol to imagine playing tennis, she would activate her premotor cortex just like the healthy volunteers.”
We then asked Carol to imagine walking around her home, because they knew that when people imagine moving through a familiar environment, a certain part of the brain stimulated. That is what happened with Carol as well.
“It really was like magic. We had found her. I was ecstatic,” writes Owen.
“Kate wrote to me a few years afterwards and urged: ‘Please use my case to show people how important the scans are. I was unresponsive and looked hopeless, but the scan showed people I was in there. It was like magic, it found me.’”
Back to Scott Routley from Ontario.
12 year later Owen moved to Western University in London, Ontario, in Canada, where he now runs a lab that specializes in assessing patients who have sustained acute brain injuries. Scott’s famil was convinced that he was aware although he showed not signs of it.
Owen and one of the scientists on his team, Davinia Fernández-Espejo put Scott through the same process.
“Scott, please imagine playing tennis when you hear the instruction.”
I still get goosebumps when I remember what happened. On the scanning screen, Scott’s brain exploded in an array of colour. He was indeed imagining he was playing tennis.
“Now imagine walking around your house, please, Scott.” Again, Scott’s brain responded, demonstrating that he was there, inside, doing exactly what he was asked. Scott’s family was right.
There is more.
Owen wanted to ask his patient the most obvious, basic question: are you in pain?
Scott’s response – by imagining playing tennis- was ‘No’.
“On that day, and on many occasions in the months that followed, we conversed with Scott through this magical connection we had made between his mind and our machine.”
What they were able to find out is absolutely remarkable.
Scott knew who he was, where he was and he knew how much time had passed since his accident.
You might be wondering if people like Carol and Scott are exceptions.
Owen estimates that 20 percent of patients whom doctors typically regard as vegetative or non-responsive are more aware than they seem: “They can see, hear and understand what’s going on around them, but are unable to communicate with the outside world.”