Terminally ill patients will be able to communicate via brain scanner

Hyperaxion Feb 27, 2020

The device will be able to detect objective answers, like “yes” and “no”, directly from incommunicable patients.

Whenever people suffer serious brain injuries that make it impossible for them to communicate, families and doctors end up being responsible for deciding whether that patient should stay alive or not – at least, in countries where euthanasia is a legal practice.

However, a new study with brain scanners is trying to read the minds of these patients to understand what their own wishes are.

Giving people a chance to decide their own fate

“Life would be so much easier if you could ask the person,” said Adrian Owen, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

He is the author of the study responsible for giving these patients a ‘voice’ so that they can decide individually for their lives.

Initially, Owen tested brain scan on a specific group of people: those who are between consciousness and coma, such as patients who are in a vegetative state.

In these cases, the patients were able to direct their thoughts as responses to instructions, which were detected in brain tests.

This allowed the team to ask questions for which the answers can be “yes” or “no”. A fifth of them managed to answer.

Now, Owen is using the same technique on people who undergo intensive therapy in the first few days after a severe brain injury. In this scenario, more than a quarter of the patients were able to respond.

The process is still challenging and dangerous

For the time being, the team scanned 20 people and Owen described the original procedure as “challenging and dangerous”, since an MRI machine was needed and, to use it, the patient was taken to a separate room in which their tubes and equipment were replaced to make the process feasible.

With the development of the study, it is possible to use infrared spectroscopy to read patients’ minds. In this way, the method can be performed only with a headset and without them having to get out of bed.

The researcher believes the technique is more likely to lead the patient to choose to continue treatment than to choose death, but for that, it is necessary to make the procedure accessible.

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