What a piece of work is man. What Shakespeare might have said with irony we can say today with great conviction, at least with regard to British neuroscientist Adrian Owen and his Canadian patient Scott Routley, who has found his voice more than 12 years after a car accident left him in a vegetative state.
Severely brain-injured, Routley hasn't spoken since that accident, but scientists using an MRI to peer into his brain can see what he's thinking as parts of his brain light up. Owen and his team from the University of Western Ontario's Brain and Mind Institute say Routley's brain is essentially doing the talking for him. The 39-year-old has responded to a series of questions, including letting researchers know that he is not in pain.
It is the first time an uncommunicative, severely brain-damaged patient has been able to give direct answers regarding his care and treatment.
Routley's previous neurologist said that for a decade, all test results taken from scans of his brain indicated he was not experiencing any mental activity.
Owen's research, first reported this week by the BBC, has determined that this brain long thought to be dark actually flares with conscious activity. If it's true that someone thought to be in a vegetative state can imagine situations - and is, therefore, capable of thinking - the news could sweep away long-held medical opinion.
In practical terms, the results could lead to improved patient care for those living with severe brain injuries.
In broader terms, the prospect of more accurate diagnoses should reduce the number of intractable end-of-life disputes that have long confounded physicians, judges, bioethicists and the heartbroken families of patients.
This latest research by Owen and his team, and the incidence of misdiagnosis that it appears to expose, is certain to give the sanctity-of-life lobby fresh ammunition the next time our ethical and legal codes are so tested.
In the meantime, Routley's case should be celebrated for what it is - a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a small ray of hope for people with loved ones in hospital beds who have been lost to the darkness.
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