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Medicine Science

Vegetative Patients Can Still Learn 159

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the better-than-some-biz-folks-i-have-known dept.
enigma48 writes to mention that a collaborative study between the Universities of Buenos Aires and Cambridge have demonstrated that individuals in a vegetative state can still learn and demonstrate at least a partial consciousness. Their findings are reported in a recent online edition of Nature Neuroscience. "It is the first time that scientists have tested whether patients in vegetative and minimally conscious states can learn. By establishing that they can, it is believed that this simple test will enable practitioners to assess the patient's consciousness without the need of imaging. The abstract is also available in the advance issue of Nature."
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Vegetative Patients Can Still Learn

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  • fMRI Strikes Again (Score:2, Informative)

    by eldavojohn (898314) *
    You might take this with a grain of salt as this Scientific American [scientificamerican.com] article points out it relies on fMRI (with the researcher also expressing caution). The same sort of scans were used to recently show that dead salmon think [slashdot.org] and also was called into question before that [slashdot.org]. From what I understand, there's a potentially huge problem with the statistical correlation done on the data to reach the images and conclusion (basically you are able to decide how much of a result you get). Given these sequential ve
    • by gameweld (215362) on Monday September 21, 2009 @12:56PM (#29493917)

      Wrong. A earlier study in 2006 used fMRI. This study used a simple classical conditioning test where they played a tune before blowing in the patients eyelid.

    • by poetmatt (793785) on Monday September 21, 2009 @12:57PM (#29493953) Journal

      I agree with this, not to mention they are talking about things that are borderline instinctual. That is not the same as "learning" in the sense of the phrase. Reminds me of that fatal birth defect where a kid is born without the top of their skull so it doesn't form all of the brain, but enough for them to cry, smile, etc and causes people serious emotional stress because it appears to be cognition when it's not.

      • by TheRealMindChild (743925) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:02PM (#29494049) Homepage Journal

        Reminds me of that fatal birth defect where a kid is born without the top of their skull so it doesn't form all of the brain, but enough for them to cry, smile, etc and causes people serious emotional stress because it appears to be cognition when it's not.
         
        It breaks my heart just thinking about being in that situation. To love someone so much and for you to find out that they can't love you back... and what you thought were the most special moments of your life were all a lie.

        • by Anonymusing (1450747) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:14PM (#29494197)

          It breaks my heart just thinking about being in that situation. To love someone so much and for you to find out that they can't love you back... and what you thought were the most special moments of your life were all a lie.

          Isn't that a country music song?

        • by dr_dank (472072) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:20PM (#29494277) Homepage Journal

          To love someone so much and for you to find out that they can't love you back... and what you thought were the most special moments of your life were all a lie.

          Lesson learned: never take a RealDoll to the prom.

        • by H0p313ss (811249) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:27PM (#29494385)

          ... and what you thought were the most special moments of your life were all a lie.

          Thanks... and I was having such a great Monday too...

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by poetmatt (793785)

          Well, I can understand the emotional distress, but the value of a birth is what people choose to put into it, same as abortion.

          The can't love back part, well, many people have had relationships like that. I mean Zooey Deschanel and Jennifer Love Hewitt still don't respond to my love letters and the requests for them to bear my children.

        • by jafiwam (310805) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:28PM (#29494401) Homepage Journal
          <blockquote>
          It breaks my heart just thinking about being in that situation. To love someone so much and for you to find out that they can't love you back... and what you thought were the most special moments of your life were all a lie.</blockquote>

          Never been married before have you?
          • by killmenow (184444)

            Never been married before have you?

            Uhh..this is slashdot. He's never even had a girlfriend.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by jollyreaper (513215)

          It breaks my heart just thinking about being in that situation. To love someone so much and for you to find out that they can't love you back... and what you thought were the most special moments of your life were all a lie.

          Happens all the time. At least someone who's missing a brain has an excuse for it.

        • by elrous0 (869638) *

          Great. Thanks for the pick-me-up, Debbie Downer!

        • by martas (1439879)
          heh, well, that's kind of a subjective judgment... you choose to believe that things like love and consciousness exist in general, just like some people choose to believe that a person in a vegetative state is still "alive". These are all just abstractions that correspond to some events, properties, etc. If it's that important to you, go ahead and believe that your child with no brain loves you. You won't really be any more wrong than someone who believes that water is wet, or someone who believes they are
      • If you're in a vegetative state, doesn't that mean you really can't learn -- or do anything else except keep your heart pumping and your lungs breathing?
        • Well, that's kind of the entire point of the debate, isn't it?

          *Some* doctors think that a vegetative state is more like a stroke- killing a portion of the brain, so you need to retrain what is left to bring the person back.

          *Other* doctors think it's more like brain death or a coma- and no conditioning is possible.

          This article is more proof of the first, denying the second.

      • M+ (Score:1, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Yes, and along that line of thinking... unless all neurons are dead, you should never be surprised that some conditioning is still going on. Neurons adjust their levels, we know that. The interesting question is, is enough still going on in there to for it to be a person? If so, could we still make contact or even wake them up? As it is, all we've seen is conditioning that is slightly less complex than the M+ key on my pocket calculator.

        • A Person's a Person, no Matter How Small.
          -Dr. E. Horton.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Abreu (173023)

            From Wikipedia's article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horton_Hears_a_Who [wikipedia.org]!

            The book (most notably Horton the Elephant's recurring phrase "a person's a person, no matter how small") has found its way to the center of the recurring debate, in the United States, over abortion. Several pro-life groups have adopted the phrase in support of their views. Geisel himself did not approve of these groups co-opting the phrase, nor does his widow, Audrey Geisel, who "doesn't like people to hijack Dr. Seuss characters or

    • by Kratisto (1080113)
      Isn't it a bit too soon to be dismissing all fMRI data as dead fishery? What is the point of replication if not to filter out noise and lurking variables? Even if the statistical processes that produce the image from the raw data are flawed, could they not be detected after the fact?
    • by Marxist Hacker 42 (638312) * <seebert42@gmail.com> on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:02PM (#29494051) Homepage Journal

      FTFA:

      This study was done as a collaborative effort between the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina), the University of Cambridge (UK) and the Institute of Cognitive Neurology (Argentina). By using classical Pavlonian conditioning, the researchers played a tone immediately prior to blowing air into a patient's eye. After some time training, the patients would start to blink when the tone played but before the air puff to the eye.

      Where in the description of the experiment involved do you find any mention of fMRI data?

      In fact, I think you could mimic this experiment with a tuning fork and a turkey baster.

      • In fact, I think you could mimic this experiment with a tuning fork and a turkey baster.

        You kinky bastard.

      • by daveime (1253762)

        The blinking was actually them transmitting in morse code "turn the bloody music down".

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by sonnejw0 (1114901)
      Actually, I believe the report said it used an electrocardiogram to determine learned behaviour to an aversive eye-puff (meaning that the vegetative patient's sympathetic nervous system was being activated in anticipation of the aversive stimulus). Regardless, the fMRI data from the dead salmon actually indicates what you can get from an MR machine if you set your parameters incorrectly. There are lots of artifacts in an MRI, and the statistics of its output is very complex, but the dead-salmon article's
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by omnichad (1198475)

        It involves hearing a tone. Auditory sensation is normally processed by the brain, although there may be some more direct pathway to the spinal cord that I'm unaware of.

    • by wigaloo (897600)
      The dead-salmon study [slashdot.org] has been rejected for publication several times, so I wouldn't take it to discredit the fMRI technique in any way. Some research papers are just plain wrong, or written by the uninformed.
      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        There are plenty of other studies, including at least on in Nature that have basically the same conclusion: fMRI data has to be analyzed properly to be meaningful.

        Yeah, not all that earth shattering, but something that gets forgotten too often, particularly now. I've heard a prominent neurologist say that the worst thing about fMRI is that it's now so easy anybody can do it.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Protoslo (752870)
      Aside from the obvious objection that others have made (the dead fish paper was pointing out that some psych researchers use statistical analyses of dubious rigor, not that fMRI doesn't work!), there is an even more relevant fact. I just read this paper, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with fMRI. And if you had actually read the link that you included, you would realize that the SciAm article claims no such thing! That article indicates that other fMRI studies imply that the accepted criteria for dis
    • by Toonol (1057698)
      A large grain of salt, also due to the shifty definitions. They use the term 'learn' in a way much different than most people understand the process. Just because a process causes a shift over time in the way a brain responds, doesn't mean the brain is learning. If that was the case, cutting chunks of brain tissue out with a knife could be called learning.

      They've found that when learning, they can measure brain response in a certain way. That doesn't mean that the brain responding that way indicates
  • by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Monday September 21, 2009 @12:51PM (#29493835) Journal

    I learned alot from Veggie Tales. Correlation?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I have been in many a long lecture that has put me in a vegetative state.

    I managed to graduate, so I must have leaned something.

  • Vegetative Patients Can Still Learn

    Well, let's be honest, no one like to admit this and we "support" them for their right to make their own decisions. But, most of us consider it a real lack of judgment, and making that conscious decision probably says a lot about their overall intelligence.

    But, I have never felt that someone was beyond hope just because they will only eat vegetables!

    {devilish grin}

  • by CRiMSON (3495) <crimson.unspeakable@org> on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:01PM (#29494015) Homepage

    for the editors of /.

  • What? I thought this was the Brian Eno thread
  • by MartinSchou (1360093) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:05PM (#29494091)

    We've had stories of Zombie Salmon [slashdot.org], rats that walk despite broken spines [slashdot.org] and now we're told that those with no brain activity can learn?!?

    Granted, that could be both politicians and zombies, but I'm preparing for the worst: Zombie Politicians. Don't believe me? This one was just a prototype! [wikipedia.org]. They're amongst us, they cannot think, they cannot be stopped, they're learning AND THEY'RE RUNNING THE COUNTRY!

    The lunatics were right! We ARE losing the country. Zombie Jesus save us all!

  • Is it worth it? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by vehicle tracking (1357065) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:06PM (#29494095) Homepage
    My guess is that we will spend millions of dollars studying this. I really don't understand why someone would want to be kept alive for years because they may learn something. I can only imagine they will learn how it sucks to be kept alive by machines. How do we know they are not experiencing a lot of pain?
    • Re:Is it worth it? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by sonnejw0 (1114901) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:34PM (#29494501)
      Your instincts about the issue are right on. These learning processes for aversive stimuli can actually only be used to judge which regions of the brain are intact and thus make a diagnosis about a possible recovery. It's a quality issue, and these kinds of examination procedures being developed in this article will help loved ones make judgment calls.
    • by R2.0 (532027)

      "I really don't understand why someone would want to be kept alive for years because their parents just won't give up."

      People in vegetative sates don't "want" anything, at least not in terms familiar to us.

    • by izomiac (815208)
      It also seems borderline reckless to do this kind of research. Obviously, the family of someone in a vegetative state would cling to any hope that their loved one might recover. Telling them that their loved one can learn will make their decision about continuing life support all the more difficult. I seriously doubt many physicians would follow up with "which puts them at the mental capacity of a gnat", even though a layman's concept of "learning" would make them assume a much higher level of intelligen
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by bill_mcgonigle (4333) *

        I seriously doubt many physicians would follow up with "which puts them at the mental capacity of a gnat", even though a layman's concept of "learning" would make them assume a much higher level of intelligence.

        There was research out last year that some can intelligently answer yes/no questions that would suppose consciousness given a short interval of training on how to answer. We hate to think that this could be true.

    • How do we know they are not experiencing a lot of pain?

      And how do we know they aren't feeling perfectly content?

    • by PitaBred (632671)
      If it could be used some something medically interesting, I'd have no problem with my body being kept alive by machines after I die. Better than tossing me in a fire and spreading the ashes... at least someone will learn something from it.
    • Some people come out, some are only under for a few days or weeks.And we can tell if they are experiencing pain by scanning their head.... or you know asking them when they get up. Any insights into the human brain and how it works on a basic level is probably a few million dollars though from the sounds of it this cost thousands of dollars at most. They needed volunteers, 1 researcher and a whistle. If the researcher could whistle he could probably have done without the whistle though.
  • What are "vegetative patents" ?
    • What are "vegetative patents" ?

      I suspect those are the types that are filed before the invention is actually complete (not even necessarily in regards to the invention ever being completed) - and they can indeed earn quite a bit.

  • My wife is a teacher in a classroom of severely disabled kids. She's had a few that some would call 'vegitative' despite having some awareness of their surroundings.

    This study probably won't change anything, because most people decide what does and doesn't count as 'alive' on a gut level. You'll even find people way at the ends of the bell curve, saying relatively high-functioning people should be put to sleep or insisting that someone whose brain has been removed entirely is still alive somewhere "in
    • by R2.0 (532027)

      I subscribe to the test the Catholic Church uses for end-of-life issues, which isn't based on physiology but capability. They distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary means for extending life. Ordinary is the basics - food, shelter, whatever you'd do for a newborn or such. Extraordinary means is anything beyond that - artificial respiration, experimental treatments, etc.

      I believe we are morally obligated to provide ordinary means of caring for someone, but not extraordinary. How it applies to peop

      • by SOdhner (1619761)
        Well, stomach tubes are actually very common. Some of the kids in my wife's classroom are tube-fed, including some that are by no means vegitative.

        The other issue - and this could just be because you didn't want to go into a more detailed definition here - is that by your definition of 'extraordinary' a huge percentage of us will fit into that at some point.

        You are probably discounting anything short-term but the definition of short-term needs to be clarified in that case and you are still left with
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mangu (126918)

        Ordinary is the basics - food, shelter, whatever you'd do for a newborn or such. Extraordinary means is anything beyond that - artificial respiration, experimental treatments, etc.

        So, is the placenta "ordinary", or is it "extraordinary"?

        The human placenta has a much greater capability than artificial respiration or any sort of experimental treatment. Why should they consent in disconnecting a fully grown human being from a machine but not allow a single cell to be disconnected from its life support system?

        • by R2.0 (532027)

          a) I wasn't going to get into abortion, but...

          b) I'm talking about deciding to remove artificial means of support. Abortion is actively severing a connection which, if left alone, will function just fine by itself.

          If you pull someone off a ventilator, they will likely die, and that's ok. If they live, cool - but that doesn't mean you get to choke them.

      • by qc_dk (734452)
        So why does the Pope drive around in an armored car? Certainly that must be extraordinary?

        The catholic church is nothing but the ghost of the dead roman empire. Their ideas and opinions have no merit in modern society for two reasons. They base their morals on a doomsday cult's propaganda material instead of humanistic ideals from the enlightment spiced up with scientific knowledge. They do not derive their power from a social contract, a mandate from the masses and therefore have no place in a secular stat
  • Frist (Score:5, Insightful)

    by WindBourne (631190) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:26PM (#29494361) Journal
    More likely than not, ppl like Frist will claim that this is proof of why he was right about Schiavo.
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Whut? A Frist post that's not a frist psot?

      My brain asplode.

  • Anyone else seeing this somehow being dragged into a few debates on abortion(mental capactity of fetuses etc.).
  • This is scary (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TechnologyResource (1638031) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:29PM (#29494429)
    For the fun of it, I googled "vegetable state" and here's what I found: "The research suggests that some of these patients may be misdiagnosed as being unconscious, when, in fact, they are aware of their surroundings but trapped in their immobile bodies." Here's the link: http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2007/10/breaking_through_to_.html [mindhacks.com]
    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      In other words, there's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do: go through their clothes and look for loose change.

    • You have an interesting idea of "fun."

  • Won't even be able to eat a fucking carrot without these yobs throwing paint on me.

  • Sure, we got high during breaks, but it doesn't mean we didn't learn anything. We displayed aversive avoidance behavior whenever a hot coal would fall on our fingers. Clear evidence of neural activity.

  • by mayko (1630637) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:36PM (#29494525)
    Ok, so the vegetative people can learn...

    That doesn't solve our biggest problem. What do we do with all the none vegetative people who cannot learn? You know... those people who think "intellegent design" is biology, and can drive a car, own a gun, and vote.
  • by cptdondo (59460) on Monday September 21, 2009 @01:50PM (#29494735) Journal

    An attorney, cross-examining the local coroner, queried, "Before you signed the death certificate had you taken the man's pulse?"

    "No," the coroner replied.

    "Well, then, did you listen for a heart beat?"

    The coroner answered, "No."

    "Did you check for respiration? Breathing?", asked the attorney.

    Again the coroner replied, "No."

    "Ah," the attorney said, "So when you signed the death certificate you had not taken any steps to make sure the man was dead, had you?"

    The coroner rolled his eyes, and shot back "Counselor, at the time I signed the death certificate the man's brain was sitting in a jar on my desk. But I can see your point. For all I know he could be out there practicing law somewhere."

  • by mevets (322601) on Monday September 21, 2009 @02:06PM (#29494971)

    What did they use for the control group in the study? Dead fish heads? C-level executives? Former presidents?

  • I'm not doubting or disqualifying other states of mind, but let's hear a round of cheer for the one that most people percieve - wakeful thought and cognizant awareness; the idea of self and the myriad of directions it takes us in.

    Chances are, you've pondered the notion at one time or another, 'I wonder if anyone else is thinking this right now', or 'I wonder how many other people have thought what I'm thinking'. What a supreme notion, to be able to have recursive thoughts where we can examine our own thoug

  • Of course the Schiavo case is the first to come to mind, but doesn't it seem that the term "persistent vegetative state" is becoming less well defined? It seems that survivors making end of life decisions for loved ones have to deal with very murky information.
  • they don't happen to mean the these kind of patients [searchviews.com] learning? It sounds dangerous.
  • We prefer to call them "CEOs". And we know they can still learn once promoted, we constantly get idiotic requests from them which we all know comes from a golf buddy or vendor.

  • The Reflex (Score:2, Insightful)

    by scorp1us (235526)
    This isn't cognition, but rather reflexive. The brain is an organic computer and it is supreme at pattern recognition. This would be only a tad higher than keeping the heart beating and other involuntary actions. Just because it is conditioned doesn't mean there is precognition or reasoning.

    I would tastelessly posit that you could program someone (or multiple someones) to preform a rudimentary calculation. If true, then we would have actual wet-ware to program. The question is then, what is the longest prog
    • by 2names (531755)
      Would you mind explaining this in more depth please?
      • by scorp1us (235526)
        Without thoughts from consciousness to get the the way, you'd have access to them at a basic processing level. You could train them that a touch somewhere means one thing and to react some way to it. Then train them to react another way, to a different stimulus. Then take another person in a similar situation and plug him into the other person so that he can present stimulus in reaction to the other guys reaction. Each stimulus can be seen as a wire, or bit. The reaction can also be seen as a wire or bit. P
  • If I were to ever become a vegetable I ask only one thing...please read me all the kung-fu books while I'm out so when I come back to 100% (because I will) I can wake up being the most bad ass ever, like Neo in the Matrix. That's not to much to ask for, is it?
  • I thought this was already proven by the existence of public schools.

  • by b4upoo (166390) on Monday September 21, 2009 @06:38PM (#29498123)

    Does this imply that high school kids might learn?

  • far-fetched (Score:3, Insightful)

    by speedtux (1307149) on Monday September 21, 2009 @07:24PM (#29498545)

    Sea slugs can learn under classical conditioning; it doesn't require consciousness or even a brain.

  • Considering that even networks comprising little more than a motor neuron, a sensory neuron, and an excitatory interneuron (a la Aplysia) can `learn', why is this surprising/interesting?

    Now, if you want to talk about the maintenance of actual `human-like behaviour' being reason to rethink the position of veggie-people, I'll be willing to talk. But a vegetable is a vegetable--there's a reason we don't treat vegetables like we do humans.

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