Bioethicists take note
One of the bigger areas in bioethics is the cluster of questions involving the end of life, such as, Is euthanasia morally permissible? Some folks are attracted to the idea that, if a person is in a vegetative state, then they may lack conscious awareness, and as a result, euthanasia may be permitted for certain vegetative patients.
A new article in Science looks like it provides evidence that undermines one of the above premises, namely, that patients in vegetative states are not conscious. Here's the abstract:
We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate preserved conscious awareness in a patient fulfilling the criteria for a diagnosis of vegetative state. When asked to imagine playing tennis or moving around her home, the patient activated predicted cortical areas in a manner indistinguishable from that of healthy volunteers.The authors of course do not claim that every (or even many) vegetative patients maintain this level of consciousness. Furthermore, they recognize that some people may not consider even this amount of brain activity to amount to conscious thought. But their next step is an encouraging one: developing a battery of fMRI tests to determine whether a particular patient has this degree of consciousness or not -- so we no longer have to guess at whether someone who's been unresponsive for 5 months (as their test subject had) is conscious or not.
UPDATE: I now see that Brains not only beat me to this story, but Pete Mandik has much more insightful commentary on it too. Oh well.