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Somebody's talking. You try to open your eyes, but nothing happens. You can't move or feel anything. In the murmurs around you, you make out a few words: prognosis, unresponsive, permanent. They keep talking about somebody who's here, somebody who never speaks and is never spoken to.
A child cries. You've heard that cry before. Out of the blackness, the thought comes at you, engulfing you: The unspeaking person is you. You're dead. And then a more horrible idea: Maybe you're not.
You try to call out, to scream. No one knows you're here, awake inside your skull. No one will ever know.
A vegetative state is far more serious than a coma -- patients have reflexes, but there is no indication they are in any way conscious. Patients in a persistent vegetative state, lasting for more than two years, have virtually no hope of recovery.
But because reflexes can be misleading, doctors often struggle to categorize and diagnose such patients.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brain's real-time activity, Owen's team asked the woman to imagine she was playing tennis or walking through her home. To their surprise, her brain lit up, showing activity in all the sites that be would expected.
Her scans showed brain activity nearly identical to that of healthy people asked to perform the same task, Owen and colleagues report in the Archives of Neurology.