This news has been making its way around the blogosphere for a few days, and this CNN video reports on the study on so-called “vegetative” patients covers it pretty well. The study in Cambridge showed that 17% of patients assumed to have no brain activity beyond involuntary impulses actually show cognitive understanding using an MRI to map brain responses to questions asked by researchers. None of the 17% had brain injury due to hypoxia, the underlying cause of the injury to Terri Schiavo, whose case became a national political crisis a few years ago, but the implications of this study are still horrific:

I’m reminded of the dialogue in the film The Elephant Man, in which Dr. Treves asserts that John Merrick (actually Joesph Merrick in real life) had to be mentally feeble as a result of his hideous deformities — to which Treves adds something to the effect that he prayed that Merrick was feeble, because the alternative would be torturous. The new diagnostic ability that this study suggests could mean that patients once dismissed for years as nonresponsive have actually had an interior life without any ability to recognize it or communicate it to the outside world. It could also mean that previous decisions to suspend care may have been made in error, although entirely in good-faith belief that the person inside had utterly vanished.

This could change all of our perceptions on the victims of tramautic brain damage, as well as offer hope for those who remain trapped but conscious inside unresponsive bodies.