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Study: Vegetative Patients Recognize Loved Ones

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Researchers monitored the brain activity of patients in a persistent vegetative state. (Getty Images)

Researchers monitored the brain activity of patients in a persistent vegetative state. (Getty Images)

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LONDON (CBS Atlanta) – It’s an agonizing question for people with loved ones in a vegetative state. Do they know I’m here?

The answer may be yes.

Israeli researchers have shown that the brains of patients in a vegetative state emotionally react to photographs of people they know personally as though they recognize them.

“We showed that patients in a vegetative state can react differently to different stimuli in the environment depending on their emotional value,” said Dr. Sharon who is from the University of Tel Aviv’s Functional Brain Center.

The scientists used a special MRI to monitor brain activity in four patients.

Then they showed them pictures of people that they did and did not know.

The parts of the brain that process facial identities fired up, indicating the patients knew they were looking at people.

When the picture was of a close family member or friend, regions involved in processing emotional and autobiographical information activated in the patients’ brains.

In other words, they reacted as if they recognized the person in the picture.

“It’s not a generic thing; it’s personal and autobiographical,” said Dr. Sharon. “We engaged the person, the individual, inside the patient.”

The researchers wanted to find out of the patients were actually conscious of their emotions or just reacting spontaneously.

So they verbally asked the patents to imagine their parents faces.

One woman, a 60-year-old kindergarten teacher who was hit by a car, showed complex brain activity in the regions associated with facial recognition and emotion…identical to results seen in healthy people.

“This experiment, a first of its kind, demonstrates that some vegetative patients may not only possess emotional awareness of the environment but also experience emotional awareness driven by internal processes, such as images,” said Dr. Sharon.

The findings may offer hope and better care for those whose bodies are functioning, but whose brains appear to be non-responsive.

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