07/07/2011 04:55 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2011

RESEARCH: 'Vegetative' Patients Might Still 'Be In There'

Six years after Terri Schiavo's husband fought to remove her feeding tubes, two researchers are working to discern whether some brain-injured patients could eventually regain some level of consciousness and once again function normally.

An article recently published in Discover magazine details in length a series of research and experiments conducted by Joseph Giacino, director of rehabilitation neuropsychology at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, and Nicholas Schiff, a neurologist at Weill Cornell Medical Center. According to Giacino and Schiff's research, not all brain-damaged patients are the same. The article explains how disorders of consciousness are all very different and range from severely impaired -- the "vegetative state" many are familiar with -- to a minimally-conscious state, in which patients switch back and forth between unconsciousness and awareness.

The researchers seek to find out just what "consciousness" and "unconsciousness" really mean. Their work suggests patients often referred to as vegetative and given no hope of recovery could possibly still think, feel and "be in there." In three separate studies conducted in part by Giacino, up to 41 percent of patients diagnosed as vegetative were in actuality at least partly aware.

The condition many know and refer to as a "vegetative" state -- in which a brain-injured patient is awake but unresponsive and unconscious -- was first given its label in 1972.

More than 30 patients have now been profiled via this new research, according to the Discovery article. Using deep brain simulation techniques, the researchers submit patients to positron emission tomography (PET) scans and CT scans to see how much energy their brains are using. An fMRI machine is used to look at brain activity and find evidence of any awareness. All the while, Giacino and Schiff are looking for fluctuations in hopes of coming up with a diagram for the recovery of a patient's consciousness.