Saturday, 20 September 2014

Watching Hitchcock Thriller Shows Vegetative Man Is Not Vegetative, After All

Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the decision to let Terri Schiavo starve to death in 2005 was ethically questionable and all too hasty. Individuals characterised as vegetative might not be so vegetative after all.

According to Nature news, “A dozen volunteers watched Alfred Hitchcock for science while lying motionless in a magnetic-resonance scanner. Another participant, a man who has lived in a vegetative state for 16 years, showed brain activity remarkably similar to that of the healthy volunteers — suggesting that plot structure had an impact on him.”

Previously, doctors often used the term permanent vegetative state (PVS) of patients who have been in a vegetative state for about a year. However, the new research suggests that this might be premature:

The film, an 1961 episode of the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents that had been condensed down to 8 minutes, is a study in suspense. In it, a 5-year-old totes a partially loaded revolver — which she thinks is a toy — around her suburban neighbourhood, shouting ‘bang’ each time she aims at someone and squeezes the trigger.

While the study participants watched the film, researchers monitored their brain activity by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). All 12 healthy participants showed similar patterns of activity, particularly in parts of the brain that have been linked to higher cognition (frontal and parietal regions) as well as in regions involved in processing sensory information (auditory and visual cortices).

… a 34-year-old man who has been in a vegetative state since he was 18, had patterns of brain activity in the executive and sensory brain areas, similarly to that of the healthy subjects

Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, says that the patient’s brain activity was “indistinguishable from a healthy participant watching the movie.”

Nature news also mentions the 2006 case of a 23-year-old woman: “When the researchers asked her to imagine playing tennis while she was in an fMRI machine, motor areas of her brain lit up in much the same way they do in healthy people.”

Incredible things do happen. In 2009, the media reported on a Belgian man who recovered consciousness after being in a coma for 23 years.

We could call them miracles.


Callaway, Ewen. 2014. Hitchcock thriller reveals busy mind in 'vegetative' man. Nature news (15 September).