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A new study that was recently published online in the New England Journal of Medicine may change the way people think about life-support for people who have been deemed unresponsive.

The study observed 54 unresponsive patients, and five of them were able to display brain activity that may be indicative of awareness, intent, and even a desire to communicate. Researchers scanned the brains of patients in hospitals in England and Belgium. The five patients whose brain scans indicated activity suffered from traumatic brain injuries which are usually caused by falls, car accidents, assault or other disasters.

The research used a brain scanning technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging. Researchers were able to discern activity in a region of the brain that is associated with the question that is being asked of the patient. For instance, when the lone patient who displayed an ability to communicate was asked to imagine walking through his childhood home, activity was observed in the region of the brain that is involved in constructing and navigating a mental map".

In addition, researchers were able to get responses to yes-no questions from a 22-year-old male patient who has been unresponsive for five years after suffering a vehicular accident. By comparing his brain activity to the yes-no brain responses of healthy volunteers, researchers were able to ask him, for instance, whether his father's name was Paul to which he was said to have answered yes.

The President of the Brain Trauma Foundation, neurosurgeon Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, called the study as very innovative. It is the first study of its kind that presents a possibility of providing previously unresponsive patients with the ability to express their wishes.