Brain scans reveal which "vegetative" patients are alert, trapped in bodies

Naci’s team came up with a method for determining whether patients are not just hearing sounds, but able to think clearly about what those sounds mean and answer questions. Other studies have shown that up to 20 percent of patients in various vegetative states can hear and respond on at least some level.

But at least some of the responses seen could be dismissed as simple reflexes, or at best akin to someone in a dream state responding to stimuli. Naci says her team’s findings show that at least some can respond with clear conscious intent.

“The technique may be useful in establishing basic communication with patients who appear unresponsive to bedside examinations and cannot respond with existing neuroimaging methods,” the team wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association journal JAMA Neurology.