In the study, the patient who came closest to that was a man in his 20s who had suffered traumatic brain injury at least five years earlier in a traffic accident, Monti said. His brain scan showed he was able to correctly answer questions such as, "Is your father's name Alexander?" though he could not verbalize or show through any movement that he could respond.
"We tried very hard to communicate at the bedside, but that remained impossible," Monti said. "But it is still the case that we managed to give him, to a little extent, a voice. In a sense there was a very positive outcome. We managed to interact. This is an extremely exciting thing."
In some ways, the research raises many more questions than it answers, Monti added.
"The human brain, even though we are learning more and more about it, is extremely mysterious to us in many ways," Monti said. "We are still struggling to understand the meaning of what it means to be conscious or to have streams of thought or self- awareness."
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more on traumatic brain injuries.
SOURCES: Martin Monti, Ph.D., neuroscientist, Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, England; Allan Ropper, M.D., executive vice chair, neurology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and neurology professor, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass., fellow, Royal College of Physicians, London, England; Joseph J. Fins, M.D., professor of medicine and public health and chief, division of medical ethics, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City; New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 2, 2010
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