A new study, conducted by scientists at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambria, was studying patients in a vegetative state and whether they were able to attend to target words. The testing was done through electrical measurements of the patient's scalp while the patient was read a series of words, such as moss moth and worm, and asked to alternatively attend to the word 'yes' or the word 'no'. If the patient was able to attend to the correct target word, the patient was considered aware of their surroundings.
Of the 21 patients that the researchers studied, one vegetative patient was able to filter out the unimportant words and focus on the relevant words that they were asked to focus on.
Using fMRI brain scanning, the scientists conducting the study also discovered that the patient followed simple commands to imagine playing tennis. This suggests that the patient was not only aware of his surroundings, but also able to pay attention.
These findings are hopeful in opening the door to specialized devices in the future that would allow vegetative patients to interact with the outside world.