Former Israeli Prime Minister's Significant Brain Activity - How Do We Know?

Israeli scientists and UCLA's Dr. Martin Monti recently found that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demonstrates significant brain activity. Seven years ago Sharon suffered two strokes. The second stroke caused him to lose most of his consciousness. Sharon is in a minimally conscious state, a little more aware than a coma or a persistent vegetative state. In 2010, Dr. Monti and several colleagues published a paper called "Willful Modulation of Brain Activity in Disorders of Consciousness" in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Monti and the Israeli investigators used the methods developed in Monti's 2010 study to assess Sharon.

Monti and the Israeli researchers asked Sharon to visualize playing tennis (tennis task) and to visualize walking through rooms in his home (navigation task). In healthy brains, these tasks are associated with distinctive functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) activation patterns in specified regions of the brain: the tennis task activates the supplemental motor cortex; the navigating task activates the parahippocampal gyrus. Sharon's fMRI scans had these patterns when he was asked to do the two tasks. Because his brain activity showed the patterns of healthy adults doing these tasks, Dr. Monti and the Israeli researchers concluded that Sharon had a significant level of consciousness.

There are a variety of reasons why many patients in the study were not able to do the tennis and navigation tasks. Patients must hear instructions, remember what playing tennis looks like and remember the layout of their home, among other parts of the task. So anyone who can do the task, like Sharon can, must have  a significant level of consciousness.

Because the fMRI patterns are so recognizable for each of the tasks, healthy adults and a few patients in Monti's study were able to answer yes or no questions by doing one of the two tasks - the tennis task for "yes" and the navigation task for "no", or vice versa. This is a promising breakthrough, because doctors and nurses had found no other means of communication with at least one of the patients.

For Sharon's family and the families of other consciousness-disorder patients, Monti's research brings hope that they will be able to communicate with their loved ones again.