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Alive inside: How do we reach 'vegetative' patients when tests show they're aware of everything – National Post



“The ominous events in the early morning hours of August 12, 1997 led to a tragedy in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan….” – from a Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench ruling issued in 1998.

There was a small band playing at the Dr. Cooke Extended Care Centre’s annual Christmas party this year, and tables laden with shortbread and popcorn curls and Christmas cookies. On one side of the room sat Jeffrey Tremblay and his father, Paul. Jeff has lived at the Lloydminster facility since he was 19 years old. He turns 41 this week.

Jeff can’t move or speak. He has to be tube-fed through his stomach. He’s aware of what’s going on, Paul says, which is remarkable given doctors wrote Jeff off as being trapped in a vegetative state for 16 years. Only Jeff wasn’t vegetative. Roughly 20 per cent of people like Jeff who are assumed to be totally unconscious — no idea of who they are or where they are, unable to exhibit any “willful behaviour”  — are actually aware, lingering undetected somewhere in a state between life and nothingness.

New guidelines could help in the search to find them.

It’s not clear how much Jeff knows about the role he’s playing in what some are calling a revolution in the treatment of the catastrophically brain injured. A senseless attack sent Jeff into the unknowable world he now inhabits.

Jeffrey Tremblay and his father Paul in October 2018.

Courtesy of the Tremblay family

The assault happened after a night out at a bar with friends. Jeff, the kid with the heart of gold and a smile that could light up a room, was beaten into a coma in a fit of jealousy over a girl. His assailant, then 19, six-feet-two-inches tall and weighing 250 pounds, kicked skinny, wiry, 130-pound Jeff in the chest with enough force to propel a football 25 yards. Jeff’s heart went into arrhythmia, starving his brain of oxygen. When he arrived in emergency by ambulance, he had no pulse, no blood pressure, no “respiratory effort,” no movement. His pupils were fixed and dilated. The blow to his chest “at the critical time of the cardiac electrical cycle,” Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench justice Robert Hrabinsky would write, led to “no effective circulation for many minutes.”

Jeff remained comatose for three weeks, until one day Paul, camped out around the clock in Jeff’s hospital room, looked up from his crossword puzzle and saw his son’s wide-open eyes and that great big smile, and thought, ‘Geez, he’s going to be fine.’”

He wasn’t. Jeff was awake, but doctors said his brain injury, his neurological loss, was so extensive, so diffuse he likely had no awareness whatsoever. “It’s tough to hear when a doctor says that. They want you to pull the plug,” Paul said. “I wasn’t prepared to do that.”

Paul didn’t know much about the brain back then but one day he found a story about a neuroscientist named Adrian Owen, a British-born researcher who for years had been using brain scans to reach inside the minds of people considered all but gone, unable to speak or move or signal to the outside world, “I can hear you. I’m in here.”

They want you to pull the plug

Sixteen years after his beating, Jeff was flown to London, where he was slid inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, or fMRI, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood oxygenation and flow, and shown a short Alfred Hitchcock movie — Bang! You’re Dead! Jeff’s brain fired off the same peaks and dips in electrical activity in the frontal and parietal regions of the brain at critical points of the movie that were uncannily identical to healthy volunteers shown the same eight-minute clip. Before then, Jeff had shown no “higher-order” signs of awareness, Owen and his team wrote in the journal PNAS in 2014, no communication in any form. The experiment suggested he was exhibiting executive processing, that he was able to engage in “complex thoughts about real-world events unfolding over time.”

Owen not only reached Jeff. The Western University scientist has used fMRI to help people once diagnosed “vegetative” follow commands, acknowledge where they are and with whom, and answer questions like, “are you in pain,” by decoding their brain activity.

Now, tests that can detect covert consciousness, not just expensive, bulky fMRI, but bedside EEG machines that use small discs on the scalp to measure brain activity, are moving a step closer to routine use. New guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology and other bodies recommend  that, where there is any ambiguity or “inconclusive” findings, brain imaging should be used to hunt for emerging signs of consciousness in the brain injured who have no recourse to speech or action — a “milestone”  development in the history of brain science, Owen and colleagues wrote in a paper, “Alive Inside,” in the journal Bioethics.

“The problem up until now has been that we develop these techniques, we put them out there, we tell people how to do them and the only patients that benefit are the people who make it into other research institutions,” Owen says. “It hasn’t been incorporated into guidelines for how one treats these patients. And that has now changed.”

Neuroscientist Adrian Owen.

Paul Mayne

Owen is pushing for the tests to be adopted even more widely, used not just months or years out from a brain injury, but at the front end in the first hours after a traumatic brain injury to help predict which patients might recover from a vegetative state, which ones might benefit from rehabilitation. Most decisions to remove life support — to pull the proverbial “plug” — occur within the first 72 hours after injury. If we can improve prognosis in that group, if we can better understand who might make some recovery, “we can perhaps save some of those lives,” Owen says.

“Maybe a different decision is right for some of those patients.”

Most remarkably, others are testing deep brain stimulation and other interventions to “re-awaken” or hasten awareness in people in minimally conscious states, even years out from their injury.

But the rapidly evolving field is also raising serious ethical challenges, about how we think about consciousness; about false hope and about the existential risks of making people more aware of an existence many would consider a living nightmare.

If someone can modulate their neural activity — communicate via signals from his or her brain — is that a sufficient, or even reliable proxy for speech? And if we find a way to communicate, what, then, do we ask them? Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable? Is there anything you’d prefer to watch on TV? Do you wish to continue living?

“What is most tantalizing about this prospect is that it would allow a seriously brain-injured patient to express their current wishes, which may well have changed radically in the interval (sometimes decades) before they expressed any premorbid opinion,” Owen wrote this year in the journal Neuron.

“Ultimately, the morally challenging question of whether theirs is a life that is ‘worth living’ is one that could be answered by the patient using fMRI,” he said.

A PET-fMRI machine at the Brain Imaging Centre in Ottawa.

Ashley Fraser/Postmedia

Sophisticated neuroimaging is already being used to involve some “covertly aware” patients in their daily care. But fMRI is expensive, bulky and nowhere near every hospital has one. However, 20 years from now brain-computer interfaces that use electrical signals from the brain to say, manipulate a computer, or move a robotic arm, could be as common as smartphones, Owen wrote.

But this is where things get dicey, says Dr. Judy Illes, Canada Research Chair in neuroethics at the University of British Columbia.

“How reliable is the signal? How do we make sure that it’s the intent of the person, that it hasn’t been hacked and that it is reproducible?” Illes wonders.

When it comes to communicating hunger or pain, it might matter less if the signal is noisy. “It’s not good to overmedicate someone but it’s much worse to under-medicate,” Illes says.

But could the signals be used in a courtroom as a form of testimony? To redirect an inheritance from the children who don’t visit anymore, to a nurse? Enable a person to request a medically assisted death?

Individuals who we thought were in a persistent vegetative state may not be and, in some cases, certainly are not

And what good is the information that a loved one appears to have some conscious processing, if there’s little available to help them? “I think that’s where I get stuck,” Illes says.

This much is true. “The technology has advanced to the point that we must attend to the fact that individuals who we thought were in a persistent vegetative state may not be and, in some cases, certainly are not. And those numbers are bigger than we ever thought,” she says.

Today, the standard way of checking for any “residual” or preserved awareness or cognitive function in brains damaged by a stroke, cardiac arrest or bash to the head are bedside scales that use response and command-following tasks — look this way or that, squeeze my hand, move a foot, follow the tennis ball with your eyes.

However, people diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, or the much larger group known as the minimally conscious, simply can’t marshal the resources to, say, blink an eye, or move a foot on command. It’s not a muscular problem. They aren’t paralyzed. Rather, there’s a central nervous system problem, a disconnection that’s preventing them from executing any movement at all, Owen says. But their thoughts, their mental process could be intact.

These people do spontaneously move. They often grunt; they’ll open their eyes or move a hand. The problem is knowing whether that’s a conscious response or merely chance.

Except in circumstances such as complete brain death, relying on neurological exams at the beside is, in many cases, “hopelessly unreliable,” Owen says.

Images of “healthy” vs. “vegetative brains.”

Courtesy of Adrian Owen

Brain imaging takes behaviour out of the equation.

In a ground-breaking Science paper published in 2006, Owen and colleagues reported that an apparently vegetative woman showed distinct patterns of brain activity when asked, while lying inside a fMRI, to imagine herself playing tennis, or walking through the rooms of her house. The pattern of her brain activity was indistinguishable from what is seen in healthy volunteers. Owen believes she was entirely aware during the scanning procedure.

Next, working with Steven Laureys from the University of Liege, Owen showed that, of 54 patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state, five 5 were able to “willfully modulate” their brain activity. One was able to answer yes or no to questions during functional MRI even though it remained impossible to establish any form of communication at the bedside. Then, in an experiment that made worldwide headlines, the team slid a man named Scott Routley inside an fMRI scanner and asked if he was in pain. The Sarnia, Ont. man had remained in what doctors were convinced was a vegetative state for 12 years after a police cruiser rushing to the scene of a crime slammed into his car in December 1999. Lying inside the scanner, Scott was told to imagine walking around his house if the answer was “yes” or playing tennis if the answer was “no.” “Do any parts of your body hurt right now,” Owen asked Routley. The answer was, no.

Images of “healthy” vs. “vegetative brains.”

Courtesy of Adrian Owen

Since then, Owen and his team have used imaging to ask patients if they prefer the temperature lower or higher, whether they still like watching hockey. “One of the sad truths is that they get exposed to an awful lot of whatever it is they used to like before they had a brain injury,” Owen says. “If you were a great lover of Celine Dion 20 years ago when you had your brain injury, maybe you don’t want to listen to that anymore. We can return a little autonomy to patients.”

Ironically, they’re often relatively healthy. They breathe on their own. Their hearts beat on their own. They’re not being kept alive, except, like Jeff Tremblay, they have to be fed and hydrated. There’s no “plug’ to pull. They can only die by withdrawing nutrition and hydration.

The better their responses in the fMRI scanner, the more likely they are to recover, Owen believes. And there have been some spectacular cases of recovery, including Juan Torres, to whom Owen devotes an entire chapter of his book, Into the Gray Zone. The Toronto-area man suffered a catastrophic brain injury when he was 19 years old. Today, six years out, he has re-enrolled in school. “He’s intellectually right back to where he was before,” Owen says.

But Juan is truly the exception. “People often think these people go from being in a vegetative state to being back on the golf course. That almost never happens,’ Owen says.

We’ve got patients who we know are on the edge of being able to establish communication

However, he and others are starting to think about interventions that might accelerate their return to consciousness, even a normal life. “Twenty years ago, people would say to me, ‘isn’t there some sort of surgery you could do to fix these patients?

“Well, maybe, but we didn’t know where to start. You need the basic imaging and you need to understand what’s causing the problem before you can solve the problem of how to fix people. And I think we’re getting there. We’re just at the tipping point right now,” Owen says.

Researchers are testing different drug therapies, including anti-virals as well as a sleeping pill called zolpidem that famously and transiently roused Louis Viljoen, of Johannesburg, from a vegetative state in 2006. Twenty minutes after his first dose, he opened his eyes, looked at his mother and said, “Hello mummy.” More recently, in October, British scientists floated the idea of using the psychedelic psilocybin, the active substance in magic mushrooms, the idea being the hallucinogen might increase brain complexity and brain plasticity — the brain’s ability to rewire itself, and grow new neurons.

The biggest hope, however, may rest with deep-brain stimulation, or DBS. Dr. Nicholas Schiff is a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. Schiff was also the lead author of a breakthrough study published in Nature in 2007 involving a 38-year-old man who had spent more than five years in a minimally conscious state who can now communicate with his family, thanks to pulses of electric current to his brain.

By stimulating the central thalamus, which relays motor and sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain involved in consciousness, Schiff’s team was able to help the man name objects, make hand gestures and eat without a feeding tube — suggesting DBS “can promote significant late functional recovery from severe traumatic brain injury” even years after the injury occurred.

“We’ve got patients who we know are on the edge of being able to establish communication, but we don’t really know what to do for them yet,” says Schiff, adding that it’s a population of patients that has been horribly neglected for years.

“Just because we identify consciousness and awareness, it’s not enough. It’s terrible to know we can make these measurements, identify awareness and not be doing what needs to be done, which is to build a medical infrastructure to support these people.”

But how quickly should we be moving? And is there a risk of overestimating what fMRI mental imagery really means? The fact this area is so fraught with ethical challenges is precisely because we don’t know what it’s like to be in such a state, or whether a person’s mental processes are functioning at full capacity.  A signal is one thing. But what does it mean?

“I’ve always imagined a clinician entering a room and saying, ‘I have wonderful news! John is aware! We know this because he’s volitionally modulating his brain activity,” Andrew Peterson, an assistant professor at George Mason University, who works with Owen’s lab, wrote in an email.

“My gut tells me that families might not know what to do with this information. What they will want to know is whether their loved one can hear their voices, feel their touch, or if he or she is experiencing pain.” However, the tests aren’t pitch perfect. Accuracy rates range from 60 to 80 per cent.

The Tremblay family in October 2018.

Courtesy of the Tremblay family

What’s more, to truly tap into a person’s state of mind requires a rich, two-way conversation, and the current technology, whether fMRI or less cumbersome, bedside EEG machines, prevents that, Peterson said. Such deeply profound decisions as “do you wish to stop being fed or hydrated” couldn’t be handled, legally or ethically, as if it were a “yes” or “no” game of 20 Questions.

A more likely scenario is how brain imaging might influence legal fights around decisions to withdraw life support.

Consider this example, Peterson says: A person’s advance directive states, “I don’t want to live if I’m in a vegetative state.” But then brain imaging detects covert consciousness. “One family member thinks that this clearly shows that the patient is not in a vegetative state and they shouldn’t withdraw care,” Peterson said. Other family members insist any detection of “covert” consciousness is irrelevant because their son or daughter or spouse could remain in that brain state for the rest of his or her life.

And it’s mostly young people who are most likely to end up with disorders of consciousness. Young people are resilient, Peterson says. They don’t die from the initial injury. Instead, they’re left in that grey zone between consciousness and unconsciousness.

And it’s impossible to know what their interior lives might be like. Some people might be relieved to learn their loved one can hear, can process speech, that they are fully aware of everything that is going on around them. Others will be horrified, and left with gut-wrenching questions about quality of life.

My gut tells me that families might not know what to do with this information

Still, the harms associated with undetected consciousness, whether it’s unnecessary pain or prematurely withdrawing care, is just too great not to starting moving the research into practice, Peterson said. “At the very least, it seems that clinicians have an ethical duty to discuss this option with families” in appropriate cases.

Before he took his son to Owen’s London lab, “everything was a dark hole,” Paul Tremblay says. “Everything was negative, negative, negative.”

“But the more you read about it, it’s just not true.”

Jeff can’t communicate. But Paul reads his eyes, to see if he’s listening or not. He smiles when he’s happy, grimaces when he’s sad, groans when he’s in pain. When he’s really tired, like most of us Jeff doesn’t listen very much. Paul takes his son to the movies once a week. He remains in touch with Owen’s lab.

“It might not help Jeff, in the long run,” Paul said. “But I think Jeff is helping the research.”

In 1998, Jeff Tremblay’s attacker was convicted of aggravated assault.

He served eight months of a three-year prison sentence.

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What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?



 India said on Wednesday it has found around 40 cases of the Delta coronavirus variant carrying a mutation that appears to make it more transmissible, and advised states to increase testing.

Below is what we know about the variant.


The variant, called “Delta Plus” in India, was first reported in a Public Health England bulletin on June 11.

It is a sub-lineage of the Delta variant first detected in India and has acquired the spike protein mutation called K417N which is also found in the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.

Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible.

“The mutation K417N has been of interest as it is present in the Beta variant (B.1.351 lineage), which was reported to have immune evasion property,” India’s health ministry said in a statement.

Shahid Jameel, a top Indian virologist, said the K417N was known to reduce the effectiveness of a cocktail of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.


As of June 16, at least 197 cases has been found from 11 countries – Britain (36), Canada (1), India (8), Japan (15), Nepal (3), Poland (9), Portugal (22), Russia (1), Switzerland (18), Turkey (1), the United States (83).

India said on Wednesday around 40 cases of the variant have been observed in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, with “no significant increase in prevalence”. The earliest case in India is from a sample taken on April 5.

Britain said its first 5 cases were sequenced on April 26 and they were contacts of individuals who had travelled from, or transited through, Nepal and Turkey.

No deaths were reported among the UK and Indian cases.


Studies are ongoing in India and globally to test the effectiveness of vaccines against this mutation.

“WHO is tracking this variant as part of the Delta variant, as we are doing for other Variants of Concern with additional mutations,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement sent to Reuters.

“For the moment, this variant does not seem to be common, currently accounting for only a small fraction of the Delta sequences … Delta and other circulating Variants of Concern remain a higher public health risk as they have demonstrated increases in transmission,” it said.

But India’s health ministry warned that regions where it has been found “may need to enhance their public health response by focusing on surveillance, enhanced testing, quick contact-tracing and priority vaccination.”

There are worries Delta Plus would inflict another wave of infections on India after it emerged from the world’s worst surge in cases only recently.

“The mutation itself may not lead to a third wave in India – that also depends on COVID-appropriate behaviour, but it could be one of the reasons,” said Tarun Bhatnagar, a scientist with the state-run Indian Council for Medical Research.

(Reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Pune, Bhargav Acharya and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru and Alistair Smout in London; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Giles Elgood)

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Colon Cancer Rates Have Increased: How Can You Improve Your Gut Health?



The majority of colon cancer cases are more common among older citizens. However, research has found that colorectal cancer rates have been rising in healthy people under 50. The rate has increased over the ten years. Medical professionals recommend screening from age 45. A colorectal screening test is done to ensure that the individual does not have any signs of cancer.

A study found that there has been a surge in colorectal cancer in younger generations and could become the dominant cause of cancer-related deaths by 2030. Since the risk is alarming, everyone needs to take their gut health seriously. Here are some things that people can do to improve their well-being.

Consider Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy is a type of colon cleanse that treats digestive issues such as constipation and bloating. Chronic constipation can lead to colon cancer, so it is vital to deal with the issue before it worsens. Colon hydrotherapy is offered at a few places, including a wellness colonic clinic in Toronto where the staff is committed to providing solutions for their clients’ digestive health.

Cleansing your colon can help improve digestion, relieve constipation, reduce gas, rejuvenate skin, and increase energy. The process involves flushing the colon with a large volume of water. It can be beneficial to speak to the professionals at the clinic and discuss your concerns with them. They will educate you about the process and answer any concerns you may have. The treatment can seem overwhelming but can also be helpful for your gut health.


Consume Sensibly

Your food intake plays a significant role in your gut health. If you have gut problems, it may be worthwhile to speak to a doctor and change your diet. You should also consider finding out if you have any food intolerance. There may be trigger foods such as oil or dairy that could be causing discomfort.

Even if you do not have any problems with your food consumption, it is never wrong to watch what you eat. Foods with probiotics or high fibre content can be good for you. Eating the right foods can improve your overall health too.

Stay Hydrated

Water almost seems like a magical drink sometimes. From skin problems to digestive issues, it can improve many situations. Consuming a good amount of water every day can balance good bacteria in the gut and promote your health. Hydration can also help your organs function properly and improve cognitive function.

Say Goodbye to Extreme Stress

It can be challenging to bid farewell to stress forever. However, chronic high levels of stress can impact your abdomen and your overall health. There is a connection between the brain and gut, and stress can cause your stomach to become anxious.

Long-term stress can trigger several gut problems such as indigestion, constipation, or diarrhea. Look for ways to reduce stress levels so that your gut can remain healthy.

Some health problems are inevitable with age, but you can do your best to stay healthy and deal with any issues you face. Prepare yourself to fight any disease beforehand, and your body will thank you.

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Biden’s vaccine pledge ups pressure on rich countries to give more



The United States on Thursday raised the pressure on other Group of Seven leaders to share their vaccine hoards to bring an end to the pandemic by pledging to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to the world’s poorest countries.

The largest ever vaccine donation by a single country will cost the United States $3.5 billion but Washington expects no quid pro quo or favours for the gift, a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

U.S. President Joe Biden‘s move, on the eve of a summit of the world’s richest democracies, is likely to prompt other leaders to stump up more vaccines, though even vast numbers of vaccines would still not be enough to inoculate all of the world’s poor.

G7 leaders want to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022 to try to halt the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 3.9 million people and devastated the global economy.

A senior Biden administration official described the gesture as a “major step forward that will supercharge the global effort” with the aim of “bringing hope to every corner of the world.” “We really want to underscore that this is fundamentally about a singular objective of saving lives,” the official said, adding that Washington was not seeking favours in exchange for the doses.

Vaccination efforts so far are heavily correlated with wealth: the United States, Europe, Israel and Bahrain are far ahead of other countries. A total of 2.2 billion people have been vaccinated so far out of a world population of nearly 8 billion, based on Johns Hopkins University data.

U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have agreed to supply the U.S. with the vaccines, delivering 200 million doses in 2021 and 300 million doses in the first half of 2022.

The shots, which will be produced at Pfizer’s U.S. sites, will be supplied at a not-for-profit price.

“Our partnership with the U.S. government will help bring hundreds of millions of doses of our vaccine to the poorest countries around the world as quickly as possible,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.


Anti-poverty campaign group Oxfam called for more to be done to increase global production of vaccines.

“Surely, these 500 million vaccine doses are welcome as they will help more than 250 million people, but that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the need across the world,” said Niko Lusiani, Oxfam America’s vaccine lead.

“We need a transformation toward more distributed vaccine manufacturing so that qualified producers worldwide can produce billions more low-cost doses on their own terms, without intellectual property constraints,” he said in a statement.

Another issue, especially in some poor countries, is the infrastructure for transporting the vaccines which often have to be stored at very cold temperatures.

Biden has also backed calls for a waiver of some vaccine intellectual property rights but there is no international consensus yet on how to proceed.

The new vaccine donations come on top of 80 million doses Washington has already pledged to donate by the end of June. There is also $2 billion in funding earmarked for the COVAX programme led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the White House said.

GAVI and the WHO welcomed the initiative.

Washington is also taking steps to support local production of COVID-19 vaccines in other countries, including through its Quad initiative with Japan, India and Australia.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in St. Ives, England, Andrea Shalal in Washington and Caroline Copley in Berlin; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Keith Weir;Editing by Leslie Adler, David Evans, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Giles Elgood and Jane Merriman)

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