Researchers in Canada found that a patient who has been unresponsive for nearly 20 years still showed awareness of his surroundings in a test involving a short film by director Alfred Hitchcock, The Verge reported on Monday.
The team from the University of Western Ontario showed the male patient, who has been in a vegetative state since suffering cardiac arrest when he was 16 — though with his eyes open — an eight-minute clip from the film Bang! You’re Dead and found that his brain activity was similar to that of a group of 12 healthy people who watched the same footage.
“What we saw is that his brain changed at all of those key moments in the movie in exactly the same way as a healthy volunteer,” Adrian Owen, who wrote the study, told the CBC. “Essentially we were getting at consciousness. We were measuring or detecting the fact that this patient was able to follow the plot.”
The study was published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Owen’s team also found that the patient’s brain also responded similar to that of a different group of volunteers when watching a “scrambled” version of the film with scenes out of order, with no emphasis on a plot.
“This was a big result for us,” team member Lorena Naci told The Verge. “The activity wasn’t just [the result] of some automatic triggering.”
Naci said the patient’s father had already been taking him to the movies on a weekly basis for years.
“It was reassuring to him that habit was indeed something that his son was understanding — something that he was benefiting from — and that he should keep doing,” she said.
Owen told the CBC that thus far, the study has measured brain activity in 15 patients. At least one of them, a 20-year-old woman who suffered a brain injury 10 years ago, did not show a response to the film. Overall, the team estimates that as many as one in five patients in similar states might still be conscious on some level.
“Our next step is to look at that in a number of brain-injured patients, and to figure out how frequently they show this type of activity,” Naci said.