Angèle Lieby could hear her husband and doctors choosing the date when they’d switch off her life support machine as she lay locked inside her body, fully conscious and feeling, but unable to move a muscle. She desperately wanted to tell them she was very much alive and felt the terrible pain doctors were inflicting believing she was insensitive. Only when during one visit her attentive daughter noticed a tear welling-up in the corner of her eye, was she saved. But Angèle could have been saved earlier with new tools now being developed to visualise consciousness. Combining functional MRI and electroencephalography, researchers scanned the shifting patterns of blood flow and electric currents across the brain in vegetative patients (left and middle) and a conscious volunteer (right). Although the two vegetative patients seemed equally lifeless, the scan revealed hidden awareness when one responded to being asked to imagine playing tennis (left).
Written by Tristan Farrow
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