Update: Belgian "coma man's" "communication" actually facilitated

Man in vegetative state not really communicating

In a follow-up to the post below about communicating in a vegetative state, a new report indicates that the Belgian man whose alleged communications first opened the window to such studies may not have been saying what was attributed to him.  Rom Houben made headlines around the world when researchers reported that in spite of his having been in a vegetative state for many years following a car accident, he appeared to be functioning at a level high enough to perceive and respond mentally to the world around him. In spite of the optimistic headlines, however, some observers expressed skepticism that Houben was doing the communicating.

Facilitated communication a bit too facilitated

As just reported in Der Spiegel, follow-up testing to address lingering questions about the report seems to indicate that Houben likely was not formulating those responses himself. Instead, the speech therapist appears to have been doing the responding. While the physician conducting the original study said that he had already tested for this possibility, further, more stringent tests demonstrated that Houben lacked even the muscle strength to have typed the responses attributed to him. It is not uncommon in facilitated communication for the person doing the facilitating to unconsciously begin communication their own thoughts or perception of the patient’s thoughts.

Not ruling out consciousness

In spite of these findings, because of the results from imaging of activity of Houben’s brain, there is little doubt that he lives in some kind of consciousness. The imaging suggests a level of activity near that of a healthy brain.  Also of interest is the fact that even though Houben didn’t pass the more stringent set of tests, another patient with a comparable diagnosis did. Thus, the quest to determine the magnitude of consciousness, perception, and response in patients diagnosed as “vegetative” continues.

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