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Man in Coma 23 Years – Is He Really Conscious?

I don’t know. The mainstream media is doing a wonderful job sensationalizing this case, presenting it without skepticism. Some outlets are doing a good job of discussing the relevant issues – but they don’t have the information to have a meaningful discussion of this particular case. Details are tantalizing but thin.

The case is that of Rom Houben. The story was broke, as far as I can tell, by the Mail Online – yes, that is a huge red flag. It does not make the story wrong, it just doesn’t instill in me confidence in the reporting.

Mr. Houben was in a terrible motor vehicle accident 23 years ago and has been paralyzed ever since. His diagnosis has been PVS – persistent vegetative state. However, recently, we are told, his mother insisted on a neurological re-evaluation. This is actually quite reasonable, generally speaking (again, without knowing specific details of this case).

As a result Dr. Steven Laureys did some advanced neuro-imaging on Mr. Houben. Laureys is a neurologist with not only legitimate but impressive expertise in coma and disorders of consciousness. Often the press throws around the term “top expert” without any meaning, but in this case the term seems appropriate.

I do not know what imaging was done, but Dr. Laureys’ team is doing research using functional MRI scanning and MRI spectroscopy – techniques which infer brain function from blood flow or metabolism. They are using these scanning techniques, during resting and activated states, to see how much cortical brain function there is in patients in apparent coma.

According to the press reports, Dr. Laureys found that Houben’s brain function was intact, or almost intact. This led to further evaluation of Mr. Houben’s clinical state, and it was discovered that he was able to communicate by typing out messaging on a board. Mr. Houben soon began recounting how he was awake the whole time, screaming inside his head, and eventually retreated into his dreams. He now feels like he has been reborn and looks forward to interacting with his family.

This is a wonderful story for the media. But to this neurologist, and I would think to any critically-thinking journalist, some questions come to mind. The biggest problem with this case as presented is that the finger-typing of Mr. Houben looks suspiciously like facilitated communication.

But first, a little background.

Coma, PVS, Minimally Conscious State, and Locked In Syndrome.

I have written previously about the various types of coma or disorders of consciousness. There are three states that are worth defining to understand this and similar cases. The first is persistent vegetative state (PVS) in which there is insufficient brain activity to general consious awareness. People in a PVS may display signs of wakefullness, like moving their eye and opening their mouths, but do not interact with their environment.

It is important to note that many people in PVS have documented brain damage of such an extent that there really is no question about the diagnosis, or their prognosis.

But, of course, there is also a gray zone, or transition from PVS to minimally conscious state (MCS). In an MCS a person cannot communicate but they do display signs that they can respond to their environment. Prognosis is very poor, like in PVS, but one notch above hopeless, with rare cases of meaningful recovery.

I must point out at this point also that I am talking about chronic states – not people who are days or weeks after an injury or event. People can recover after a significant injury, but they typically show potential for recovery early on. After months or years in a coma, the prognosis is grim.

In terms of diagnosis, it can be challenging to distinguish between PVS and MCS – it’s the different between no signs of consciousness and minimal signs of consciousness. Of course, there may be very subtle signs that are missed. And as our technology improves, we are sure to have greater sensitivity and pick up more cases of MCS misdiagnosed as PVS.

It remains to be seen, however, if the subtle distinction is clinically meaningful.

To add to the complexity, however, there is a condition call locked in syndrome. In this (thankfully rare) syndrome patients are conscious but paralyzed. For example, a brainstem stroke might cause a person to be paralyzed below the eyes – all they can do is blink and move their eyes. But they are fully conscious if the thinking part of the brain is intact.

Facilitated Communication

Facilitated communication, or FC, has nothing to do with coma but is relevant to this case because of some of the media reports. FC is the technique of holding a patient’s hand to “help” them communicate by pointing to letters on a board.

When FC was first proposed to the therapy community, it seemed like a powerful new technique – countless children who were thought to be too brain damaged to communicate were believed, due to FC, to actually have almost intact intellects trapped inside a non-communicating body.

Unfortunately, FC was promoted prior to proper scientific validation. When it was studied in properlyh controlled blinded trials it turned out the the facilitator, and not the client, was doing all the communicating. FC is nothing but a well-meaning delusion. But it is also a dangerous one – FC testimony has led to the false conviction of adults accused of abuse.

While we do not want to miss any cases of a person’s hidden ability to communicate, the FC experience teaches us to be cautious. We must always ask – is communication (or any sign of consciousness) real? Has it been validated in an objective and controlled way?

The Houben Case

I am always a bit uneasy analyzing these media cases, because I often do not have direct access to the patient or the medical records. So I have to add the standard disclaimer – my analysis is based upon the information that has been made public, not a thorough medical evaluation of the patient. I can often only analyze the pieces of evidence I am given, and speculate as to probabilities.

In this case there are several interesting aspects that do not all fit together. The first question is whether or not it is plausible that a patient would be diagnosed as being PVS when in fact they were locked in (that is the claim in this case). That would be unusual, but not impossible.

Typically when patients are locked in there is identifiable damage that can produce widespread paralysis, but the cortex should be relatively spared. In addition, there are typically some residual functions remaining, like eye movements. But it is possible for even that to be lacking.

More likely is the possibility that Mr. Houben was initially comatose but then over the years his brain function improved until he was able to be conscious. But by that time he was paralyzed and debilitated, and so not able to move to demonstrate his consciousness – locked in. Also by that time he would likely be in a chronic care facility and may not have had close neurological exams.

So while this would be an usual case, I can buy it. Further, this is consistent with the finding of preserved cortical activity on functional scanning.

The implications of this case, and similar cases, is that we need to use careful and standardized neurological exams to assess comatose patients, and they should be periodically reevaluated. But at the same time – not all cases have the potential to improve. Some patients are injured beyond the plausibility of making meaningful recover, and families should be given a realistic assessment of their loved-one’s condition. Also  – cases like this are the rare exception, not the rule.

Now comes the tricky part – the clinical correlation. Looking at brain anatomy and activity is important, but must be placed into a proper clinical context. At present, the clinical exam is still critical.

I don’t know what Mr. Houben’s exam is. But I do have a video of him communicating. What I can say with high confidence is that this is a video of bogus facilitated communication. The “facilitator” appears to not just be supporting Houben’s hand, but moving it around the keyboard.

Houben is looking in the general direction of the keyboard, but at times not directly at it (which is necessary for single finger typing). It is not clear if he can even see, and since his eyes are not in line it is not clear which eye he would be using.

His hand is also in a brace; his finger is not touching the board – the plastic of the brace is – so he would have little sensory feedback.

And yet his hand flies dextrously across the board typing very quickly. It seems impossible that someone with his level of paralysis, and years of inactivity, would be able to type so quickly with just a little “support”. There is little doubt, in other words, that his typing is the product of bogus FC – the facilitator is doing the communicating, not Houben.

Reporting of his typing is without skepticism, and so basic questions are not addressed. It would also be almost trivial to test whether or not the communication were legitimate – the report says he responds in Flemish – so have a non-Flemish speaking facilitator hold his hand. Apparently, he also understands English so you could have a non-English speaking facilitator answer questions posed in English. Or blind the facilitator to the keyboard or visual information that Houben has access to.

What would not be sufficient, however, is a knowledge test – asking Houben about events in the past or about his life, for example. This is too difficult to tightly control – a facilitator may have been contaminated, or may just make obvious or lucky guesses.

In an interview for NPR, Laureys reports that the family came up with the method of communication, and it was validated by having Houben identify objects that were show to him – that’s it. Laureys also reports that the medical doctors were skeptical of this communication, and it seems right that they were.

Until a tightly controlled test is done, the FC evidence is worthless.

But I do not know if this is the only clinical evidence of consciousness in Houben. Perhaps he can do what other locked in patients can do – tap once for “yes” and twice for” no,” for example. Maybe the FC is a later addition – a misguided attempt to communicate with Houben, who really is locked in. (In which case I wonder what he thinks about his facilitator – perhaps he is still screaming in his head, “get rid of this nut and let’s go back to the finger tapping.”)

The only thing I am certain about in this case is that the typing out of messages through FC is bogus. Otherwise, I do not have access to sufficiently detailed information to make any specific conclusions.

Hopefully, more information will come to light as further journalists are attracted to this case. Also, I have e-mailed Dr. Laureys hoping to get some more information directly from him. He responded with a link to his paper on this topic, but there is no identifiable information in the paper about Houben. He simply says that Houben illustrates the problem discussed in his paper – the misdiagnosis of MCS as PVS. He did not comment on the FC used in this case. If I get any further information I will write a follow up.

Meanwhile, this case stands as a cautionary tale – mostly about the dangers of the media discussing the implications of a story before the facts have been verified. It may also be a rare case of misdiagnosed locked in syndrome. My best guess is that Dr. Laureys is correct about the preserved cortical activity, but he is simply not familiar with the phenomenon of FC (he did not sound familiar on the interview) and has been deceived by it.  If this is so, then the FC is an unfortunate distraction from this case (and getting disproportionate attention from the media). I am already reading science bloggers comment on the fact that the video of Houben typing calls the whole case into question.

It is also, in my opinion, a further abuse of this patient. Mr. Houben, if he is truly conscious, has now been deprived once again of his ability to communicate – usurped by a facilitator, who will be communicating in his name (and even writing a book, we are told). Never underestimate the ability for pseudoscience to make a bad situation worse.

Addendum: Here is a new video in which Houben clearly has his eyes closed while the “facilitator” is typing furiously. This is completely impossible. (Hat tip to Orac for the link – he has also discussed the case.)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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