Terri Schiavo of Florida, whose vegetative state and right to life became a national issue in 2005

By Jeannie Chung

The difference between a dead man and a man in a vegetative state used to be a thin line of whether
or not the body was still functioning. But what if the vegetative man is still conscious? That brings
the distinction into a whole new level.

Philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong gave a talk titled “Is he conscious? Does he want to be?” at the Trent Center for Bioethics on Friday, Dec. 9. He discussed clinical studies which have shown that despite the unresponsive display, patients in vegetative state may be still conscious. With assistance from an fMRI or an EEG scan, doctors can tap into the patient’s brain activity and “read their thoughts.”

The scanning study’s control was patients who received severe brain trauma and were confirmed to be in a vegetative state. The studies focused on the specific brain activity when the patient was commanded to “think about tennis” and the brain activity that occurred when the patient was commanded to “imagine anything other than tennis.” The distinctive brain activities were then coupled with a series of yes or no questions. If their answer was yes, the patient was told to think about tennis and if their answer was no, the patient was told to think about navigating through a house. In one case study, the patient answered five out of seven questions right by showing brain activity associated with tennis to questions for which an affirmative was the correct answer. The other two questions showed no response, and the doctors assumed the patient had gone to sleep.

This confirmation of consciousness in some vegetative patients brings up an ethical issue. Those at the bedside can now ask questions, including “do you want to live?” The vegetative patient’s answer to such a question may inform the ethical issue that arises each time we worry about “pulling the plug” on a clearly “living” person.