There was no significant relationship between patients' clinical histories and their ability to follow commands, the researchers noted.
This finding could have profound implications for the patient, their families and their health care teams, Cruse said. "An exciting future possibility, which is our next primary aim, is to develop this technique into a communication tool," he explained.
"Since we now are able to demonstrate that potentially 20 percent of patients considered to be in a vegetative state are actually able to understand what we ask them, our next aim is to provide them with the ability to respond. Clearly, an ability to interact with their external world will greatly change the lives of any patients who are able to make use of this technique."
The next step is to be able to ask patients questions like: "To answer yes, imagine moving your right-hand, to answer no, imagine moving your toes," and one could tell their answer from their brain activity, Cruse explained.
There are a number of technological hurdles to overcome in interpreting patient responses, but these are not insurmountable, he said.
Dr. Jonathan A. Friedman, director of The Texas Brain and Spine Institute at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Bryan, said that "the study is novel and potentially important."
"This study adds to a growing body of knowledge suggesting that the vegetative state is more complicated and diverse than previously thought," Friedman said.
Dr. Jaime Levine, medical director of brain injury rehabilitation at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said that "there is nothing worse than a patient who is conscious, but has been diagnosed as vegetative. So, a test that was portable could prove useful."
Such a test could identify patients who have "rehabilitation potential." In addition, it could help families make decisions about treatment and end-of-life
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