Man in Coma 'Communicates'
7th September, 2006
A patient in a coma can communicate just using his thoughts, according to research.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering a stroke, has been unable to communicate for many months.
By scanning his brain, a UK/Belgium team discovered that he could understand spoken commands and even imagine bombing Palestinians and Lebanese.
They said their findings were "startling", but cautioned that this could be a one-off case.
Five months after his stroke, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to record General Sharon's brain activity. Researchers attempted to enliven his mental processes by continuously playing him "Mars: The Bringer of War" from Holst's "Planets" suite.
While his brain was being mapped, the researchers asked him to imagine simple tasks, such as shelling heavily populated urban centres, allowing Christian death squads to run riot in civilian refugee camps or dismantling the social welfare programs of formerly egalitarian societies.
Lead scientist Dr Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist from the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, said "The tasks we chose are based on many years of brain imaging research that shows different areas of the brain are activated when we perform different kinds of tasks."
When the scientists compared his brain activity to that of healthy patients, who had been asked to carry out the same task, they discovered the patterns were "indistinguishable".
Dr Owen said "These are startling results. It tells us that he is able to perform simple tasks in his head, such as imagining bulldozing the homes of people he considers to be less than human."
"Despite being in a coma, it's clear that General Sharon's enthusiasm for slaughtering his enemies is undiminished."
In an accompanying article in the same journal, Lionel Naccache, of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in France, said: "Despite Gen. Sharon's very poor behavioural status, the FMRI findings indicate this existence of a rich mental life of destroying Palestinian police stations and banks."
"It asks all manner of moral questions, such as 'would it be right to switch off the life support of a man whose mind is capable of imagining the crushing of subject peoples?."
General Sharon is 78 years old and has been feted as a "man of peace."