Patient in vegetative state plays mental tennis

December 1, 2006
C. P. Kaiser

The 23-year-old patient, who suffered from injuries arising from a traffic accident, was asked to imagine playing tennis and walking around her house. The tennis request elicited activity in the supplementary motor area, while the house tour activated the parahippocampal gyrus, the posterior parietal cortex, and the lateral premotor cortex.

An unconscious and outwardly unresponsive patient apparently was capable of understanding and responding to certain commands as measured by functional MRI.

The 23-year-old patient, who suffered from injuries arising from a traffic accident, was asked to imagine playing tennis and walking around her house. The tennis request elicited activity in the supplementary motor area, while the house tour activated the parahippocampal gyrus, the posterior parietal cortex, and the lateral premotor cortex. Her brain activity matched that of 12 controls (Science 2006:313:1402).

The results represent a clear act of intention, according to Dr. Adrian Owen of Cambridge University, "which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings."