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A 23-yr-old woman, supposedly in a “vegetative state” stunned doctors by responding to certain commands asked of her. The results have been displayed in brain imaging showing more is going on in her head than meets the eye.

Although the unnamed woman can’t move or speak, she has responded to sentences spoken to her and even played an imaginary game of tennis in her head, her doctors say.

The results have all been recorded on a brain scanner and show that disabled patients like Terri Schiavo or those who are comatose may be much more aware than they appear. Terri’s father, Robert Schindler, agrees and, in a statement, said the case shows more should have been done to save his daughter’s life and to listen to experts who said she wasn’t as bad off as her former husband made it appear.

“This new case is not surprising to our family,” Schindler said. “We are seeing a growing amount of evidence indicating that the diagnosis of ‘Persistent Vegetative State’ (PVS) is often misdiagnosed, resulting in dangerous and potentially fatal consequences for people with brain injuries, as documented in this new account of a brain injured woman,” he explained.

“The danger of the PVS diagnosis is that it is being used as a reason to kill innocent people with disabilities, like Terri,” her father added. “We believe that this PVS diagnosis is inhumane and it should be abolished.” [11Sept06,]

Under the leadership of neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen, the team of scientists from Cambridge University and the Belgian University of Liège applied MRI technology to discover that the brain activity of a PVS patient indicated she was “consciously aware of herself and her surroundings.”

In their experiment, the researchers gave oral commands to a 23-year-old comatose Englishwoman, who fulfilled all the requirements of a “persistent vegetative state”, while they measured her brain activity with an MRI scanner. According to the researchers, the woman showed increased activity in speech comprehension centers in her brain while researchers spoke to her, indicating comprehension.

When the researchers asked her to imagine herself playing tennis and walking through the rooms of her home, the imaging screen showed activity in the woman’s brain areas governing visual-spatial and motor functions: all patterns similarly observed in healthy volunteers.

In their report, Dr. Owen and his scientists wrote, “Despite fulfilling the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of vegetative state, this patient retained the ability to understand spoken commands and to respond to them through her brain activity, rather than through speech or movement. Moreover, her decision to cooperate with the authors by imagining particular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear act of intention, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings,” they stated in the September 8 issue of Science. [Peter J. Smith, 15Sept06]