New Technique Helps Find Hidden Consciousness in Coma Patients


Some patients who are in a coma may be aware of their surroundings even though they can’t visibly communicate with others, and now, scientists have found a new way to help identify these patients.
Consciousness is one of the most mysterious phenomena. Scientists still don’t know exactly how the brain activity gives rise to consciousness, but they have been able to find some differences between a conscious brain and an unconscious one. Such insight could help researchers design tests for the minority of comatose patients who may be “aware” but who are unable to show it.
In a new attempt to tackle this issue, researchers looked at 32 comatose patients and 26 healthy people. Some of the comatose patients were diagnosed as “minimally conscious,” meaning there was some evidence that they may have retained some awareness of their surroundings (for example, the patient could follow simple commands, such as squeezing a finger). But others were diagnosed as “vegetative,” which means they were thought to have lost all conscious awareness, even though they could breathe on their own or open their eyes.

The researchers examined participants’ brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG) and applied mathematical tools to the EEG data to find patterns of communication across brain regions. The researchers then compared these patterns in the comatose patients’ brains with those of healthy people.
As expected, the brain-activity patterns in the comatose patients’ brains differed from those of the healthy participants. Healthy, conscious brains showed “rich and diversely connected networks,” which were lacking in the comatose patients’ brains, the researchers said. [Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]
However, some comatose patients who were thought to be completely vegetative actually showed some patterns similar to those of healthy people. These were the patients who, despite being diagnosed as vegetative, had been suggested to have some level of awareness in previous brain imaging experiments. For example, although the patients did not perform any physical movements in response to commands, brain imaging showed that when they were told to imagine doing a physical activity, such as playing tennis, the area of the brain responsible for controlling movement, lit up.
“Some vegetative patients who show signs of hidden awareness have remarkably well-preserved networks similar to healthy adults,” the researchers wrote.
Moreover, the researchers found that the brain activity of minimally conscious patients was linked with how responsive they were: The patients who were more responsive had brain activity that was more similar to that of healthy people, according to the study, which was published today (Oct. 16) in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.
The new findings could help doctors identify “vegetative” patients who actually have some awareness, as well as improve their clinical assessment, the researchers said.
“Being able to detect the recovery of brain networks in patients, alongside or even before they show behavioral signs of improvement, is very promising,” the researchers said in a statement.
However, the researchers noted that more work is needed before their new findings can be applied to the patients and be used as a reliable tool for guiding their clinical care.

What Is In A Cigarette? Chemicals and Ingredient List Confirm How Dangerous Smoking Really Is


Over 3,200 Americans under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette every day, and most of them are unaware of what they are getting into. Many new smokers may not realize how quickly their new habit can lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung diseases, and certain types of cancer. If you’re looking for an explanation as to why cigarette smoke results in more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States, look no further than its ingredients. The average cigarette contains upward of 600 different ingredients on top of over 7,000 chemicals produced by cigarette smoke. Where these ingredients and chemicals also show up may shock some smokers into quitting once and for all.

“One of the issues with cigarettes is that they have hundreds of added ingredients, not just what is naturally in the tobacco plant,” environmental health scientist with Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Dr. Luz Claudio told Medical Daily in an email. “What complicates this even more is that when these chemicals burn, they form other chemicals that may have additional effects on health.”

While tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds insist that a lot of the ingredients found in cigarettes are also found in Food and Drug Administration-approved foods and beverages, a few of these ingredients are also found in products that you would never think to put in your body otherwise. Take for example arsenic, an inorganic substance found in wood preservatives and rat poison. On the FDA’s Established List of Harmful and Potentially Harmful Constituents in Tobacco Products and Tobacco Smoke, arsenic’s dangers include: carcinogen, cardiovascular toxicant, and reproductive or developmental toxicant.

Some of cigarettes’ harmful ingredients and chemicals are more familiar, such as carbon monoxide, which can be found in car exhaust fumes, and nicotine, also found in insecticides. There’s also formaldehyde, a cancer-causing ingredient of embalming fluid. Others may not seem so dangerous by name alone like cadmium, an active ingredient in batteries, or hexamine, sometimes found in barbecue lighters. Approximately 70 of the chemicals and ingredients found in a cigarette are considered carcinogenic, meaning they have the potential to cause cancer. Almost all of these ingredients can lead to death in some way or another.

“Cigarette smoke can affect the flow of oxygen within our bodies in two ways,” pulmonologist specializing in pulmonary rehab with City of Hope, Dr. Brian Tiep toldMedical Daily. “First, carbon monoxide grabs on to the hemoglobin molecule, which prevents the transport of oxygen through red blood cells. Secondly, cyanide hinders tissue’s ability to take up and utilize oxygen. Tissue cannot function without this steady flow of oxygen.”

According to the American Cancer Society, cigarette smoke accounts for at least 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths in the U.S. This includes 87 percent of lung cancer deaths among men and 70 percent of among women. Cigarette smoke can also lead to certain lung diseases including emphysema, bronchitis, and chronic airway obstruction. There are currently more than 16 million Americans suffering from a disease that was caused by smoking. If appropriate prevention strategies are not put in place to curb the number of young Americans who pick up smoking, an estimated 5.4 million people under the age of 18 will die prematurely due to a smoking-related illness.

Scientists find ‘hidden brain signatures’ of consciousness in vegetative state patients — ScienceDaily


Scientists in Cambridge have found hidden signatures in the brains of people in a vegetative state, which point to networks that could support consciousness even when a patient appears to be unconscious and unresponsive. The study could help doctors identify patients who are aware despite being unable to communicate.
These images show brain networks in two behaviorally similar vegetative patients (left and middle), but one of whom imagined playing tennis (middle panel), alongside a healthy adult (right panel).

Scientists in Cambridge have found hidden signatures in the brains of people in a vegetative state, which point to networks that could support consciousness even when a patient appears to be unconscious and unresponsive. The study could help doctors identify patients who are aware despite being unable to communicate.

There has been a great deal of interest recently in how much patients in a vegetative state following severe brain injury are aware of their surroundings. Although unable to move and respond, some of these patients are able to carry out tasks such as imagining playing a game of tennis. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures brain activity, researchers have previously been able to record activity in the pre-motor cortex, the part of the brain which deals with movement, in apparently unconscious patients asked to imagine playing tennis.

Now, a team of researchers led by scientists at the University of Cambridge and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, have used high-density electroencephalographs (EEG) and a branch of mathematics known as ‘graph theory’ to study networks of activity in the brains of 32 patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious and compare them to healthy adults. The findings of the research are published today in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. The study was funded mainly by the Wellcome Trust, the National Institute of Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The researchers showed that the rich and diversely connected networks that support awareness in the healthy brain are typically — but importantly, not always — impaired in patients in a vegetative state. Some vegetative patients had well-preserved brain networks that look similar to those of healthy adults — these patients were those who had shown signs of hidden awareness by following commands such as imagining playing tennis.

Dr Srivas Chennu from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge says: “Understanding how consciousness arises from the interactions between networks of brain regions is an elusive but fascinating scientific question. But for patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious, and their families, this is far more than just an academic question — it takes on a very real significance. Our research could improve clinical assessment and help identify patients who might be covertly aware despite being uncommunicative.”

The findings could help researchers develop a relatively simple way of identifying which patients might be aware whilst in a vegetative state. Unlike the ‘tennis test’, which can be a difficult task for patients and requires expensive and often unavailable fMRI scanners, this new technique uses EEG and could therefore be administered at a patient’s bedside. However, the tennis test is stronger evidence that the patient is indeed conscious, to the extent that they can follow commands using their thoughts. The researchers believe that a combination of such tests could help improve accuracy in the prognosis for a patient.

Dr Tristan Bekinschtein from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, adds: “Although there are limitations to how predictive our test would be used in isolation, combined with other tests it could help in the clinical assessment of patients. If a patient’s ‘awareness’ networks are intact, then we know that they are likely to be aware of what is going on around them. But unfortunately, they also suggest that vegetative patients with severely impaired networks at rest are unlikely to show any signs of consciousness.”


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Cambridge. The original story is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Chennu S, Finoia P, Kamau E, Allanson J, Williams GB, et al. Spectral Signatures of Reorganised Brain Networks in Disorders of Consciousness.PLOS Computational Biology, 2014; 10 (10): e1003887 DOI:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003887

Nothing is slowing Ebola so far, says epidemiologist, but vaccines promising


Ebola is spreading as such a rate that it is outrunning all efforts to contain it, Roy Anderson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology and former chief scientist at the British Ministry of Defence, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.

“Those hospitals [in West Africa] have got to be able to deal with and quarantine a very large number of patients,” he said. “So what’s feared is that the doubling time of this epidemic is going to escape the Western response at present.”

“I’m not totally convinced that these hospitals will actually slow the spread significantly.”

Because there is neither a drug to treat infected patients nor a vaccine to protect potential ones, the only option medical workers have right now to prevent the spread are efforts to quarantine people who are infected.

“Although they may slow the spread, and we need more resources to do that, longer term the solutions must be either immunotherapy, which is putting serum into infected patients, but most importantly of course in the longer term, a vaccine.”

He said that phase one human trials of potential vaccines, in the United States, United Kingdom, and Mali, have so far presented no safety concerns. Volunteers in Oxford were given a trial vaccine last month.

“So then if that continues to be good news, then the question is an international agency and regulatory authority one – it is how can we speed up the process of getting this trial vaccine, first of all manufactured on a scale, and that’s a challenge, real challenge, for the companies, and then deploy it as quickly as possible.”

Even under “the most optimistic scenario,” though, such a vaccine would not be available until the beginning or middle of 2015.

Some have suggested that reaction in the Western world to the outbreak has been out of proportion to the threat, and that attention should really be paid to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, where medical resources are sparse.

Dr. Kent Brantly, an American who contracted and survived Ebola, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the fear in America is “irrational,” because the only people who have been infected in the U.S. are health care workers who were treating an Ebola patient.

Anderson agreed that the fear may be a bit much, but did not shut the door on the idea of Ebola spreading in the Western world.

“The epidemic is spreading in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea at a rate which is each primary case of infection generates two secondary cases. That’s the average. In the United States, two secondary cases generated, admittedly by health care workers who were caring for the very ill patient.”

The chief of the American military, General Martin Dempsey, caused controversy this week when he suggested that the virus could mutate and become even more pernicious.

“This virus is a little bit different from the viruses that were causing sporadic epidemics way back in 2004 and the previous forty years,” Anderson said. “The number of changes in a code, which has nineteen thousand bits, is about three hundred. Relatively small.”

“So my first concern is not mutation; my first concern is getting this under control. And at the moment there is no evidence to say this is airborne droplet transmitted.”

“However, I stress that this is a very difficult infection to study, and there’s no evidence to say not. But my assumption, and the evidence at the moment, points to contact.”