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PET brain scan

The Guardian, UK, reports that for 23 years, Rom Houben was trapped in his own body, unable to communicate with his doctors or family, who presumed he was in a vegetative state following a near-fatal car crash in 1983.

Physicians used a state-of-the-art scanning system on the brain of the martial arts enthusiast, which showed it was functioning almost normally, the newspaper says. Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liège, Belgium, has published a scientific paper saying Houben could be one of many falsely diagnosed coma cases around the world.

Houben is at a facility near Brussels and now communicates via a computer with a special keyboard activated with his right hand, which is capable of minimal movement. He said his body was paralyzed after the crash. Although he could hear every word his doctors spoke, he could not communicate with them.

To read the entire article, click here.

Houben was effectively trapped in his own body as care personnel and physicians at the hospital in Zolder tried to communicate with him, but eventually gave up hope that they could.

Houben said the moment it was discovered he was not in a vegetative state was like being born again.

Experts say Laureys’ findings are likely to reopen the debate over when the decision should be made to terminate the lives of those in comas who appear to be unconscious but might have almost fully functioning brains.

Belgian doctors used an internationally accepted scale to monitor Houben’s state over the years. Known as the Glasgow Coma Scale, it requires assessment of the eyes, verbal, and motor responses. But they failed to assess him correctly and missed signs that his brain was still functioning.

Laureys, who is head of the coma science group and neurology department at Liège University hospital, concluded coma patients are diagnosed falsely "on a disturbingly regular basis," the article says. He has examined 44 patients believed to be in a vegetative state, and found that 18 of them responded to communication.

Laureys said patients who are not fully unconscious can often be treated and are capable of making considerable progress.

Around a fifth of patients who suffer serious head and brain injuries spend more than three weeks in a coma, the article says. Of those, between 15% and 25% are, technically speaking, still alive but remain in a state of unconsciousness, never to wake up.

A report in Medical News Today adds the following details:

Now 46, Houben told the BBC that he had to learn to be patient. He was very angry at first when he realized other people had an opinion of him that was rather pathetic, but he had to learn to be patient, he said.

Intense physiotherapy for the last 3 years has been helping him regain some movement, reports the Guardian.

"I dreamed myself away," Houben said, using one finger on a computer touchscreen attached to his wheelchair. The computer is also fitted with a special device that allows him to read books while lying down, reported the Daily Mail.

Houben’s paralysis was the result of his brain being starved of oxygen when his heart stopped for a few minutes.

A former engineering student who speaks four languages, Houben said he coped by meditating, according to a Guardian report.

He told his doctors that sometimes he was only his consciousness and "nothing else" as he travelled with his thoughts into the past or "into another existence".

Click here to read the entire Medical News Today article.

"Diagnostic accuracy of the vegetative and minimally conscious state: Clinical consensus versus standardized neurobehavioral assessment."
Schnakers C, Vanhaudenhuyse A, Giacino J, Ventura M, Boly M, Majerus S, Moonen G, Laureys S.
BMC Neurology 2009, 9:35 (21 July 2009).

[Source: The Guardian]