abstract image of a face; Credit: Kholood Eid

Some People Who Appear to Be in a Coma May Actually Be Conscious

Brain scans reveal that some people who can’t speak or move are aware of the world around them

October 18, 2022

A medical team surrounded Maria Mazurkevich’s hospital bed, all eyes on her as she did … nothing. Mazurkevich was 30 years old and had been admitted to New York–Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University on a blisteringly hot July day in New York City. A few days earlier, at home, she had suddenly fallen unconscious. She had suffered a ruptured blood vessel in her brain, and the bleeding area was putting tremendous pressure on critical brain regions. The team of nurses and physicians at the hospital’s neurological intensive care unit was looking for any sign that Mazurkevich could hear them. She was on a mechanical ventilator to help her breathe, and her vital signs were stable. But she showed no signs of consciousness.

Mazurkevich’s parents, also at her bed, asked, “Can we talk to our daughter? Does she hear us?” She didn’t appear to be aware of anything. One of us (Claassen) was on her medical team, and when he asked Mazurkevich to open her eyes, hold up two fingers or wiggle her toes, she remained motionless. Her eyes did not follow visual cues. Yet her loved ones still thought she was “in there.” [read more]

Editor's Note: Jan Claassen, a co-author of this article, is an associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Source: Scientific American