Many vegetative patients are actually 'covertly conscious'

This unsettling new understanding of vegetative patients raises medical ethics issues.

Many vegetative patients are actually 'covertly conscious'
Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash
  • For a long time, doctors assessed whether patients were in vegetative states through behavioral tests.
  • However, brain scans have revealed that some of these patients are actually in a state of "covert consciousness."
  • Covertly conscious patients are aware of their surroundings, but cannot respond to external stimuli.


In 2005, a 23-year-old woman was caught in a traffic accident that gave her a traumatic brain injury. Her doctors diagnosed her as being in a vegetative state — that is, absent of awareness and responsiveness, but still able to keep her heart pumping, her lungs breathing, to fall asleep and become awake, and so on.

Five months after her accident, however, researchers conducted an experiment showing that she had not completely lost her conscious awareness. Using an fMRI, researchers asked her to imagine playing tennis or walking through her house. Though the patient had been unable to respond to any other cues, the fMRI showed that her brain lit up when asked to imagine these things, suggesting that she was, in fact, conscious to some degree — just unable to move her hands or open her eyes on command. This patient would be the first time that signs of consciousness were detected in an ostensibly vegetative state using fMRI.

The trouble with diagnosing vegetative states

Since then, more and more cases of this sort have come to light. In fact, over the years, researchers estimate that around 10 to 20 percent of supposedly vegetative patients in fact experience what's called "covert" consciousness. Patients with covert consciousness do not respond to behavioral tests of awareness yet show brain activity related to awareness. It is important to note that covertly conscious patients do not fail to respond to behavioral tests because they are paralyzed. Instead, they fail to respond because the parts of their brain that respond to stimuli are damaged — they can still move, and sometimes will, but typically not in response to external stimuli.

After a traumatic brain injury that lands a patient in an ostensibly vegetative state, many clinicians assume a poor prognosis. As a result, many families decide whether to keep their loved one on life support or to withdraw it within the first three days after admission.

"The problem with severe brain injury," said neuroscientist Nicholas Schiff in The Scientist, "is that you have people who all look the same who could have very different trajectories of recovery over time, response to treatment, or already achieved level of recovery." Better diagnostic tools are needed to "sort the variance and also to figure out who we should look at more closely and immediately."

A better method

A healthcare professional administers an EEG.

BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Patients with covert consciousness have been shown to recover at higher rates than those in persistent vegetative states even though they appear to be the same from the outside. Deciding to pull the plug on a loved one is never an easy task, but the uncertainty of whether or not they are truly beyond help makes it even more difficult.

Fortunately, researchers are working on ways to improve diagnosing these cases of covert consciousness. While fMRIs were the original way that researchers detected covert consciousness, applying them in critical care settings can be challenging. Electroencephalographs (EEGs) are likely to be far more useful as a diagnostic tool.

The first large-scale demonstration of using EEGs to diagnose cases of covert consciousness was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, where doctors asked patients to move their hands (which neither vegetative nor covertly conscious patients can do), and then used machine learning to decipher their EEG readings to identify brain activity in response to the commands. Twelve months later, 44 percent of those patients who were detected to have some brain activity were no longer vegetative and could function independently compared to just 14 percent of patients with no sign of activity in the EEG.

"This is very big for the field," Nicholas Schiff told The New York Times. "The understanding that, as the brain recovers, one in seven people could be conscious and aware, very much aware, of what's being said about them, and that this applies every day, in every I.C.U. — it's gigantic."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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