A new book claims that so-called ‘locked-in syndrome’ – in which someone in an apparently comatose or vegetative state is actually aware of what is going on around them – may be far more common than previously suspected.
In Into the Grey Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death British neuropsychologist Adrian Owen recounts the results of his own indefatigable efforts over 20 years to develop reliable techniques for assessing the conscious experiences of apparently unconscious people. These techniques involve functional neuroimaging methods such as PET (positron emission tomography), fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electroencephalography) to see what is happening in the brain when the patient is asked to attempt various complex mental tasks – imagining oneself playing tennis, for example. Performance on these tasks was compared with control tasks to discern whether conscious awareness was being employed. Owen developed these techniques with certain comatose patients into a method of eliciting ‘yes/no’ answers to specific questions.
The book has important implications for both daily care and end of life decisions concerning such patients. But a review of the book by Edward F Kelly of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences University of Virginia posits a further implication. Referring to one of Owen’s case studies, Juan, whose brain scan showed widespread diffuse white matter damage following a chocking incident, but who later recovered to recount details of Owen’s unsuccessful attempts to elicit any response from him. Kelly’s review, in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol. 32) points out that takes Juan’s case out of the realm of locked-in syndrome and into the more parapsychological realm of near-death-experience. And he makes some interesting comments about the possible overlap between the two states.