Measuring Awareness In Comatose Patients

Neuroscientists in Belgium are attempting to quantify consciousness in patients who are living in a vegetative or minimally conscious state.

To derive a numerical measure of consciousness, [Melanie Boly, a postdoctoral fellow at the Belgian National Fund for Research in Liege, Belgium] and her colleagues pulsed subjects’ heads with a brief electromagnetic wave, then measured neural responses using electrodes stuck to the scalp.

In 32 healthy, awake people, the electromagnetic impulse sent complex patterns of electrical activity reverberating throughout the brain. In healthy sleeping people, or people under general anaesthesia, the brain displayed shorter, simpler responses that stayed closer to the site of the initial stimulation. The researchers quantified these differences in a measure of response complexity.

In six patients diagnosed as vegetative, the electromagnetic pulse elicited responses with complexity indices similar to those in sleeping or anaesthetized healthy subjects. Twelve minimally conscious patients showed slightly more complex responses. And two ‘locked-in’ patients — people who are fully conscious but unable to move or communicate — showed complexity indices similar to healthy, awake subjects.

Philip K. Dick wrote about a science-fictional technology that is similar. In his 1969 novel Ubik, newly deceased persons who were preserved in a cold-pac bin could be communicated with. Their brains exhibited what was called "half-life", which could be perceived with a protophason amplifier:

"Twill only be a moment," Herbert made his way back to the cold-pac bins to search out number 3054039-B.

When he located the correct party he scrutinized the lading report attached. It gave only fifteen days of half-life remaining. Not very much, he reflected; automatically he pressed a portable protophason amplifier into the transparent plastic hull of the casket, tuned it, listened at the proper frequency for indication of cephalic activity.

Faintly from the speaker a voice said, "... and then Tillie sprained her ankle and we never thought it'd heal...

From Reuters via Frolix_8.

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