Medical mind-reading brain scanners to ask patients who cannot speak

Doctors are using brain scanners to ask patients who cannot speak about their treatment wishes

 

When a person sustains a severe brain injury that leaves them unable to communicate, their families and doctors often have to make life-or-death decisions about their care for them. Now brain scanners are being tested in intensive care to see if mind-reading can enable some patients to have their say, New Scientist can exclusively reveal.

 

At the moment, doctors ask the families of people who have a poor prognosis and cannot communicate if they think their relatives would want to continue life-sustaining treatments such as being on a ventilator. “Life would be so much easier if you could just ask the person,” says Adrian Owen at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

 

Owen’s team previously developed a brain-scanning approach for a much smaller group of people – those in states between consciousness and being in a coma, for example, those in a vegetative state. Such people show few signs of awareness and have to be fed through a tube.

 

Owen found that some of these people can direct their thoughts in response to instructions, which can be picked up on brain scans. If someone is asked to imagine playing tennis, for instance, the part of their brain involved in movement lights up in the scan. This has let him and other teams ask those who are able to respond in this way yes/no questions, which can give people a say over their living conditions. About a fifth of people the technique is tried on can respond.

 

Owen is now using the same technique on people who are in intensive care in the first few days after sustaining a severe brain injury. In such circumstances, just over a quarter of people end up having their treatment withdrawn due to a poor prognosis. For example, in some cases, doctors may predict that if the person survives, they would be paralyzed and unable to speak. “A decision will typically be made in the first 10 days about whether to go on or pull the plug,” says Owen.

Sourced through Scoop.it from: pepsfeeder.com