Retractions: Failure of Facilitated Communication

Last December, doctors at Liege University hospital declared that a patient thought to be brain dead for 23 years following a car crash victim was actually conscious, and able to communicate. It turns out that apparent communication (enacted using a technique known as "facilitated communication") was merely artifact, and that the patient is, unfortunately, as comatose as was first believed.

Hopefully this public error should stand beside other extraordinary discoveries of higher activity in supposedly comatose patients.  As more techniques are used to examine putatively comatose patients, both scientists and the general public entertain extreme caution during the diagnosis and treatment of severe brain trauma, tempering an enthusiasm for newer, flashier techniques with the use of more classic diagnostic tools.

Note: This is not to say that comatose patients are ever misdiagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state; there are, unfortunately, too many individual accounts of such an event, and happily, a rising number of patients whose consciousness has been discovered due to advances in modern medicine (see an earlier post from this blog regarding the use of MRI to diagnose brain states). Indeed, given the complexity of the human brain and our uncertain knowledge of how consciousness is generated, it behoves us (doctors, scientists, humans) to be cautious when it comes to the effects of traumatic brain injury, not allowing diagnostic decisions to be swayed by the popularity of any one test, no matter what findings (miraculous or not) it may propose.

No miracle as brain-damaged patient proved unable to communicate, by Denis Campbell. Guardian. (via @noahWG)


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog