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Shocking Number of Patients Not Really Brain Dead

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Studies from Canada indicate that approximately 20% of patients misdiagnosed as “brain-dead” are in fact conscious and have the potential to recover from traumatic brain injuries. This misdiagnosis can have fatal consequences that can result when physicians and loved ones “pull the plug” on life support systems that are keeping patients alive. New technology that detects brain activity could be the answer.

Aware & Awake

Studies from England showed even more dramatic results than those from Canada. In the British studies, it was estimated that up to 40% of patients are misdiagnosed as being “brain dead” when in fact they had varying levels of consciousness.

Individuals who are comatose do not respond to light or pain, and do not have a normal sleep-wake cycle. Patients in a locked-in state are aware and awake, but cannot move or communicate.  

Those in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS), or coma, are awake, but do not have any signs of awareness that medical science including MRI scans can detect. Because these conditions prevent the individual from communicating, and because many physicians do not order the necessary tests to detect awareness, patients can be misdiagnosed as “brain dead.”

New Scanners to Detect Awareness

Researchers at Cambridge are developing new tests and scanners to detect brain activity. Using familiar stimuli, the scanners determine whether the individual is responding to heat, cold, touch, sound, photographs, etc. The scanners then determine whether there are fluctuations within the brain that signal recognition of the stimulus. When physicians review these fMRI scans and determine a patient is aware, they can alter the treatment and care regimen in such a way that it can help the individual recover from their injuries.  

Coming Back from the Dead

Accurately diagnosing those with severe brain injuries is crucial to the individual’s long-term care and potential recovery. Misdiagnosis can result in the denial of care and treatment that can otherwise restore the individual’s brain functions and improve their quality of life. In the worst case scenario, those patients who are aware but whose life-support systems are turned off by family members or physicians can suffer a wrongful death at the hands of those responsible for caring for them. 

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