.- Reacting to news of a breakthrough in brain scanning technology, Terri Schiavo's brother Bobby Schindler is calling for a halt to removing hydration from brain-damaged patients who are thought to be in a persistent vegetative state.
An âunscientific, inaccurateâ diagnosis of unresponsive patients is being used as âa criterion to kill,â Schindler charged.
Schindler was responding to news that researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the University of LiÃ¨ge have used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map a patientâs brain activity while he was asked to answer âyesâ or ânoâ questions.
One patient, a 29-year-old man who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in a traffic accident, was able to communicate by willfully changing his brain activity, a press release from the MRC reports. He correctly answered questions such as âIs your fatherâs name Alexander?â
Dr. Adrian Owen and his team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England were the developers of the technique.
âWe were astonished when we saw the results of the patientâs scan and that he was able to correctly answer the questions that were asked by simply changing his thoughts,â Dr. Owen commented. âNot only did these scans tell us that the patient was not in a vegetative state but, more importantly, for the first time in five years, it provided the patient with a way of communicating his thoughts to the outside world.â
Dr. Steven Laureys of the University of LiÃ¨ge, a co-author of the study, said the scans were the only viable method for the patient to communicate since his accident.
âItâs early days, but in the future we hope to develop this technique to allow some patients to express their feelings and thoughts, control their environment and increase their quality of life.â
The three-year study conducted fMRI scans on 23 patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. The technology detected signs of awareness in four of the cases, 17 percent of the participants.
The fMRI technique can decipher the brainâs answers to questions in healthy participants with 100 percent accuracy but has previously not been used for a patient who cannot move or speak.
Dr. Martin Monti, another MRC co-author of the study, said the advance could help with clinical questions and would allow patients to say if they are feeling any pain.
The new study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Dr. Allan Ropper, a neurologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, wrote an editorial accompanying the study. According to HealthDay News, he said that people are going to have to âgrappleâ with the meaning of brain scans that show consciousness or residual consciousness.
âIt has to do with what you think life is and what is a meaningful life. Those are social, cultural and theological questions,â he said.
He also cautioned against giving false hope to families, noting the small percentage of the responsive patients. All the studyâs patients had suffered traumatic brain injuries, not damage from oxygen deprivation.
Speaking of the 29-year-old patient, Monti said âit is still the case that we managed to give him, to a little extent, a voice. In a sense there was a very positive outcome. We managed to interact. This is an extremely exciting thing."
CNA sought comment on the issue from Bobby Schindler of the Terri Schiavo Foundation.
His sister Terri, who was severely brain damaged from oxygen deprivation, was at the center of a 2005 legal dispute in Florida. She was denied nutrition and hydration by court order in a case between her blood relatives and her husband.
Schindler said the study backs other findings about the âunscientific, inaccurateâ diagnosis of a persistent vegetative state (PVS) and shows how it is âoftenâ wrong when diagnosing people with severe injuries.
âAs in the case of my sister, theyâre using this diagnosis as a criterion to kill.â
Schindler said his family had asked a judge for similar testing for Terri but it was denied.
If the technique was easy to conduct and available, he said, it would have given a better understanding of her condition. âWhy not ask, especially when it is going to end someoneâs life?â
Asked whether the case offers insight into how unresponsive patients should be treated, he replied:
âNobody should have to earn the right to hydration. We should do everything we can to care for these people, regardless of how responsive or unresponsive they are.â
Schindler lamented that people are being âindoctrinatedâ to see killing as âan act of compassion.â
âWe are morally obligated to care for these people,â Schindler told CNA.
âThey should stop any further dehydration deaths, because weâre learning how inaccurate the PVS diagnosis is.â
Discussing the other patients who could not communicate, he said families of unresponsive patients should continue to treat them with âlove and compassion.â
But the patientâs condition should never justify removing food, hydration or âbasic care,â he stressed.
Schindler also noted that improvements on science are possible and could improve unresponsive patientsâ functioning.
âWe should never come to the conclusion that someone is better off starving to death,â he told CNA.
He was critical of news reports that claimed the new technology would not have helped Terri Schiavo, saying some stories were written âas if these doctors want to go out of their way to justify Terriâs death.â
âIf you read these articles, it seems they always have this caveat: âletâs not jump to conclusions with Terri Schiavo and say these tests would have proven she wasnât in the conditions the doctors said she was in.ââ
Schindler told CNA that more doctors were on record saying that Terri could have been helped with some of the technology available. They believed that she wasnât in a vegetative state.
He also advocated the elimination of the term âvegetative stateâ from common use, saying it is âdehumanizingâ and devalues the person and his or her âinherent moral worth.â In his view, PVS diagnosis should also not be used as a criterion for ending someoneâs life because of how often it is wrong.
Schindler said he describes unresponsive patients as âpersons with brain injuries.â
âI donât know why I have to label them as being a vegetable. I think it leads to an existing prejudice against these types of people,â he told CNA.