Finding a voice: severe brain injury


I’m not one to get emotional when watching programmes on TV, I don’t cry at sad endings, I don’t usually scream at scary films, but this programme brought a few tears to my eyes to say the least.

If you have access to BBC IPlayer, look it up, if its there: ‘The mind reader: unlocking my voice’

Professor Martin Owen: ‘the mind reader’

Martin Owen is a neuroscientist, originally based in Cambridgeshire. He has pioneered new tests and techniques that have been able to detect brain function in patients that have to all intents and purposes been classed as in a ‘vegetative state’ with no further treatments available and a bleak long term prognosis.

The programme follows the stories of patients who have suffer severe traumatic brain injury, and emerged from a coma into a twilight world, awake yet not really aware. If scientists can release their thoughts, they could be given back their voice.

All patients are men, all have suffer a severe head trauma, their ages range from early 20’s to 40’s. all have been tested by several different people and means, and have been assessed as in a vegetative state, not aware of themselves and their surroundings. All are taken to Professor Adrian Owen, who uses fMRI to text brain function in relation to questions that they are asked, while in the MRI machine.

20121215-212549.jpg They are asked questions which are designed to create brain activity in different areas, which lights up green, yellow and red. They are asked to create specific given images in their mind as a response to the question.

“We all know what we mean when we talk about consciousness – but we have no real understanding, scientifically speaking, of what it is. We can more or less tell if somebody is or isn’t conscious – but there’s no measure of it. And yet it’s one of the most fundamental experiences of being human.”

By looking at brain activity in healthy volunteers, using an imaging technique called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), The team think up ideas on how to test these questions. Once they’ve worked out what normal brain activity looks like on an fMRI scan and what it means, they can look for similar activity in the brains of patients with brain injury – which might indicate that they are conscious.

Professor Adrian Owen is able to detect consciousness in 1/5 of his patients, all of which usually have been diagnosed as in a vegetative state. Stewart Newman was the story that found remarkable though.

Stewart Newman’s remarkable story

Stewart was injured in a car accident, and diagnosed as in a vegetative state. His parents were told that he would never get any better. Stewart appears on the programme, and is able to communicate by pointing to a letter grid in front of him to spell out words. Stewart is also able utilise limited use of is left arm, his parents hope in time he will be able to use an electric chair. His progress is truly remarkable. The presenter asked him what it was like when he first woke up and couldn’t communicate. ‘I would scream at the wall’ he spelt out.

Another man, now 39, suffered brain trauma 12 years ago. His parents were adamant that he could communicate with them, although professionals disagreed. The fMRI showed they were right, and he was asked was he in pain? The response, through thought patterns, was no. His journey has begun at last.


Then I thought of Tony Nicklinson, locked in sufferer who wanted to end his own life, because he could only communicate with his eyes. What a contrast. He knew that he could communicate, it the quality of life was not enough for him. Was their quality of life enough, for those men with brain trauma? Wo knows. Perhaps one day they will tell someone. The parents were asked this question, and they said they would broach the subject, only if their son raised the discussion.

How many times have I seen on the news, people who appear to be ‘vegetative’ and hear their parents turn off the machines. Were they also ‘screaming at the wall’ like Stewart was?

How many times have we moaned about some minor issue, which now pails into insignificance?

How can you NOT be motivated?

Do you need motivation? Take these amazing men’s stories as your motivation, and watch that BBC panorama programme if you can.

It will change your outlook on life.

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