Scientists Surprised by What They Saw in the Brain of a Vegetative Man While He Watched Hitchcock Film

A man who has been in a vegetative state for 16 years, after he seemingly lost consciousness at 18 years old due to injuries endured in an assault, goes to the movies every Wednesday with his father, Nature News reported.

Now, scientists are able to tell that he has been processing those movies in his brain.

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario used MRI to monitor the brain activity of healthy participants as well as this vegetative patient as they watched a short Alfred Hitchcock movie. What the scientists found was this patient exhibited similar brain activity to healthy patients while watching the film.

“The fact that we can say he is enjoying these movies, he can understand these movies says something about his quality of life,” Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the university and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging, told Nature. “There are a lot of Wednesdays in 16 years.”

Brain activity of the patient who has been unresponsive for 16 years. (Image credit: University of Western Ontario/Lorina Naci)
Brain activity of the patient who has been unresponsive for 16 years. (Image credit: University of Western Ontario/Lorina Naci)

“For the first time, we show that a patient with unknown levels of consciousness can monitor and analyze information from their environment, in the same way as healthy individuals,” Lorina Naci, a postdoctoral fellow at the university and lead researcher on the study, said in a statement. “We already know that up to one in five of these patients are misdiagnosed as being unconscious and this new technique may reveal that that number is even higher.”

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this week, found a “common basis of human consciousness and [enables] the interpretation of conscious experience in the absence of behavior,” the authors wrote.

The brain activity of patients in the study as they watched a short Hitchcock film was picked up by an MRI machine. (Photo credit: University of Western Ontario)
The brain activity of patients in the study as they watched a short Hitchcock film was picked up by an MRI machine. (Photo credit: University of Western Ontario)

Owen said that using this technique could “detect not only whether a patient is conscious, but also what that patient might be thinking. Thus, it has important practical and ethical implications for the patient’s standard of care and quality of life.”

Watch the researchers talk about their findings — and why they picked a Hitchcock flick for their experiment:

Front page image via Ale Ale/Flickr

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