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Ariel Sharon shows significant neural activity
By JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH
27/01/2013
Brain of former PM - in coma for 7 years - shows "surprisingly significant activity,"; no indication he'll ever wake up.
 
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the activity in the brain of former prime minister Ariel Sharon – who has lain in a deep vegetative state for the last seven years – has been shown to be “surprisingly significant,” according to a team of brain researchers at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka University Medical Center on Sunday.

However, that does not mean that he will ever regain consciousness, or that he feels anything, other fMRI experts said.

The special scanner measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow and is used to map neural activity in the brain and the spinal cord. It does not require people to undergo shots, surgery, ingest substances or be exposed to radiation.

The procedure is similar to MRI, but uses the change in magnetization between oxygen- rich and oxygen-poor blood as its basic measure.

The BGU-Soroka team said the results “show the existence of sensory information processing” in Sharon’s brain, which suffered severe damage as a result of his second stroke at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem when he was prime minister.

The scan was conducted on Thursday by BGU nerve scientist Prof. Alon Friedman and his colleagues. Family friends made comments to Yediot Aharonot on Sunday about the test.

Although the 85-year-old former prime minister has been taken care of at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer – which has its own fMRI scanner – for most of the time since he was felled by two strokes, he was brought by ambulance to Beersheba for the tests.

Soroka said they were conducted there because “advanced new imaging techniques” were recently made available to the Beersheba hospital team by Prof. Martin Monti of the neurosurgery and psychology departments at the University of California at Los Angeles. They wanted to determine the “amount and quality of activity” in Sharon’s brain, Soroka said.

During the two-hour test, researchers “showed” Sharon photos of his family, played his son Gilad’s voice and presented stimulation by touch.

To their surprise, Soroka said, “significant brain activity was found in each test and in suitable brain areas. This demonstrates the existence of sensory data processing” by his brain.

They then conducted some tests aimed at estimating Sharon’s “level of consciousness,” and that despite the existence of “several encouraging” results, “they were still too weak to reach clear conclusions,” the team said.

Monti said that “information from the external environment reaches suitable brain centers in Mr. Sharon’s brain. Nevertheless, the evidence is not clear cut on how much he is aware of his environment.”

Dr. Ilan Shelef, head of Soroka’s imaging center, said that “this kind of research, which is at the forefront of science today, was the main motivation for the purchase of the advanced fMRI by Soroka and BGU.”

Dr. Tzvi Ganel, of BGU’s Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, who initiated the tests, said the Sharon family was pleased that the advanced techniques were used, and they could be useful for other families.

BGU’s Dr. Galia Avidan added: “This is the kind of research that opens a window on the understanding of basic questions connected to deeper understand of the basis of human consciousness.”

Soroka’s fMRI model is Philips’ 3T Ingenia.

“This important test expressed the great effort and cooperation between BGU and Soroka. There is no doubt that we wouldn’t have been able to reach the necessary level of execution without it,” said Soroka imaging center director Dr. Ilan Shelef.

BGU president Prof. Rivka Carmi said the cost of the device was about $3 million, and it is “regarded as the most advanced of its kind in Israel.” The cost was covered not only by Soroka and BGU but by Soroka owner Clalit Health Services and US donors.

“The new system,” said Carmi, “makes possible the immediate conversion of the analog signals that the body releases to digital signals and greatly improves the quality of the picture and the speed of the scanning compared to analog systems.”

Meanwhile, researchers at other fMRI centers, who did not want to be quoted because they have not examined Sharon nor seen his medical file, noted that they too have studied reactions in patients who are in deep comas.

Patients who have been in such a coma for a shorter period may come out of it, they said. Patients without severe brain injuries could react through an fMRI scan, not if asked yes or no questions, but if told to think of a specific object, or if they could answer a particular question. A familiar piece of music or odor could also trigger a reaction.

But reacting to stimuli via fMRI does not mean the patient has awareness, they added, or that the patient really can communicate.

However, brain research on patients in a deep vegetative state could, they agreed, have the potential to help patients in the future, as they could learn how to awaken patients. The actual chances of recovery for a person who has been in a deep vegetative state for seven years is virtually nil, they concluded.
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