Patients in Vegetative State Can Respond Emotionally to Loved Ones

The Jahi McMath case is this decade’s Terri Shiavo case, albeit with less media attention this time. (This is because the media ‘won’ in the Schiavo case. She was removed from her feeding tube, despite objections from her parents.)

In the Shiavo case, her husband favored pulling the plug while her extended family objected. The husband won. However, in the McMath case her family (with powers of attorney) favor favor keeping her alive… while the hospital wants to pull the plug. (Shiavo’s family is supporting Jahi McMath’s family in their fight to keep her alive.)

Where is the media outrage at the cold and ‘capitalistic’ hospital wanting to terminate Jahi’s life support, at the very notion it ought to be a hospital’s decision at all?

Well, a new study finds that patients in a vegetative state can respond emotionally to loved ones:

It has long been thought that patients who are in a vegetative state–frequently due to a traumatic brain injury–have no awareness of their environment or themselves.

A new study using fMRI brain imaging, though, shows that some patients can display emotional reactions to pictures of loved ones (Sharon et al., 2013).

The study is surprising because patients in this condition show no signs of being aware of their surroundings. They breathe on their own, sleep and wake up, but otherwise appear utterly unresponsive to what’s going on around them…

The new study… put four patients who were in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) in a brain scanner and showed them pictures, some of people they knew and some of strangers.

These results were compared with those from a healthy control group.

For two PVS patients, the brain scans suggested emotional awareness.

One patient in particular–a 60-year-old woman who had been hit by a car–showed brain activity in the emotional and face-processing areas of the brain when looking at pictures of loved ones.

Similar activity was also seen when she was asked to imagine her parents’ faces.

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