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Vegetative state no barrier to learning

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

New research shows that some patients who are semi-conscious, or in a vegetative state can still learn. Family members typically speak to loved ones who are unresponsive, in hopes that they can be heard. The new study revealed that being in a vegetative state is no barrier to learning.

The scientists used a simple test for their findings. They discovered that patients in a vegetative state could remember, and learn to respond to stimulus. The findings mean that rehabilitation could benefit patients with decreased levels of consciousness.

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The researchers played a Pavlonian tone, and then blew air into the eye of minimally conscious patients, to make them blink. After “training” the patients several times, they found that they would blink merely at the sound of the tone – the response showed awareness, and that memory to the stimulus was formed. The same test was performed on patients under anesthesia who did not show the same type of learning.

Lead study author Dr Tristan Bekinschtein says, "This test will hopefully become a useful, simple tool to test for consciousness without the need for imaging or instructions. Additionally, this research suggests that if the patient shows learning, then they are likely to recover to some degree."

Patients in a vegetative state cannot voluntarily move. Imaging techniques are the standard for assessing the health of the brain for patients with altered levels of consciousness. The current research, conducted collaboratively by the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina), the University of Cambridge (UK) and the Institute of Cognitive Neurology (Argentina), shows that though patients in vegetative states cannot respond, they can learn and remember. The test could be used by clinicians to asses a patient’s level of conscious; without the need for imaging like MRI and CAT scans.

Nature Neuroscience
Written by Kathleen Blanchard RN
Charlotte, NC
Exclusive to eMaxHealth