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Can You Communicate With a Loved One in a Vegetative State?

Human Vegetable

It's never easy to see someone you love, particularly as you and your loved one get older, lapse into a vegetative state before leaving the world forever over half the time. It's hardest to see a parent, a souse or even a child become unconscious to the world around them, able to breathe but not do much else.


I knew an old man once. His wife was in the nursing home, hooked onto machines that fed her and kept her alive. He would spend all day, every day, by her side. She did not know who he was, could not move or talk and seemed utterly unaware of his presence. And yet he persisted, bringing flowers from time to time, ensuring he was always there, reading a story, watching television. He tried to act like she was there with him in mind as well as in body, and perhaps she was.

You see, a study at the University of Cambridge provided much needed evidence of the level of consciousness in seemingly minimally conscious individuals. 21 patients in vegetative or minimally conscious state were compared to 8 healthy volunteers.

Electroencephalography was used to monitor brain activity as they were instructed to listen to certain words in a whole jumble of them. A word was fired per second for 90 seconds and the experimentation repeated every 30 minutes. fMRI was also used to study the brain's reactions to words, phrases and commands.

Here, we can stop to say that the brain is known for it's plasticity. An enigma to this date, it is a wonder how the human race has managed to figure out how to use certain technological advancements in order to map out the brain's intricacies.

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The results?

Even in vegetative state,

  1. One can sort through information mentally
  2. One can follow instructions
  3. One can respond to commands
  4. One can seemingly visualize scenes

That is about as strange as things get. Then again, those in comatose state have sometimes been found to have been conscious all along but without the means to communicate with the world. Furthermore, those in a vegetative state have been found to be able to learn, with the ability to remember things as well.

With a 40% misdiagnosis rate, it seems that many of those deemed vegetative are in fact experiencing Locked-In Syndrome, where the patient is aware and awake but cannot move or communicate due to complete paralysis of nearly every muscle in the body. The study mentioned above, however, makes no indication that the individuals studied were in this state, a prospect we are left to wonder about.

In short, this study means researchers now have a better idea on how to create technology mediums that would allow those in vegetative or minimally conscious individuals like the wife of that loyal old man to communicate, particularly since the mind seems to be more or less intact.



I recently had a patient in my NICU that suffered a terrible bleed in her brain that lead to a "Locked In Syndrome". It was heartbreaking for her and her family. She was able to communicate via blinking of her eyes only. She had a Living Will that she wanted enforced and the family reluctantly took her off life support. I will never forget this case.
How would she be communicating by blinking? Yes/No Q&A?
Yes she responded through yes and no answers. It was the tears as she did it that broke our hearts.:-(
What stands out is the so very true statement that we still know so little about the brain. We really don't know what the experience of someone is who cannot respond "normally".
The brain seemingly works normally in certain functions but has a block on ability to communicate. It's most definitely curious to see the fMRI scans. I wonder how soon they will develop the right technology that allows for communication.