Mind-Reading Brain Scanners Could Give Voice to Intensive Care Patients

The new scanners allow patients in a vegetative state to answer yes or no questions.
Loukia Papadopoulos

What happens to people who suffer severe injuries that make it impossible for them to communicate? They are often left at the mercy of doctors and families who are obligated to make vital decisions for them. According to New Scientist, however, now there are new mind-reading brain scanners that may remedy this situation.


“Life would be so much easier if you could just ask the person,” Adrian Owen at the University of Western Ontario in Canada told New Scientist.

Owen’s team is behind the new scanners which he has trialed on people who were in a vegetative state. The novel invention works by tracking parts of the brain that light up in response to questions.

In this way, Owen believes he can analyze yes or no answers. The technique has proved successful in about one-fifth of people.

The approach uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy. This technique is completely non-invasive and can be done at the bedside since all it requires is a headset.

Intensive care

Owen is using his scanners to tackle some very important matters. He is targeting people in intensive care that are just a few days in after having sustained a severe brain injury.

In those circumstances, doctors may reveal to patients that they could be paralyzed or unable to speak. “A decision will typically be made in the first 10 days about whether to go on or pull the plug,” said Owen.

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And what Owen is trying to do is to allow patients to be the ones to solely make the decisions.

The technique can also be used to estimate who may recover. The people who could respond to the brain scanners had more chances of making it through.

Even though there is much to celebrate here, experts warn that the brain scanners may only work for a limited amount of people.

“This is potentially exciting but I wouldn’t want people to get their hopes up because this might only be applicable to a very small group of people,” Paul Dean of the UK’s Intensive Care Society told New Scientist.

Still, the invention is a positive first step to a world where the voiceless may be given the opportunity to have a say over their state and future. And this is definitely something to get excited about.

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