Coma Patients Appear to Recognize Faces of Loved Ones in New Study
On December 22, 2013 researchers working in Tel Aviv led by Dr. Haggai Sharon reported that patients in long term vegetative coma might be able to recognize familiar faces. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they looked at brain activity in both healthy and vegetative subjects. First they showed both groups pictures of strangers, and then pictures of familiar faces. The brain activity patterns of the vegetative patients matched that of the healthy subjects.
According to Stanford neurologist Karen Hirsch all we know so far is that the facial recognition area of the brains of the coma patients was activated. Do they still know the people whose faces were shown to them and do they truly recognize those faces in a socially and emotionally meaningful way? Worst case scenario is that this is just a response to a stimulus with no other significance. At this point it is too early to tell, but research will continue. Dr. Sharon is hopeful that showing coma patients visual stimuli with emotional meaning may spark their brains and help push the healing process. This line of research, if successful, could potentially solve one of the most difficult problems of neurological critical care which is how do you know when someone is still living vs. brain dead? Sharon says” “If we could effectively communicate with the patient herself, perhaps we could simply ask whether or not she wants to go on living. However, we are still a long way from communicating with patients in such a way.”