Deserving a careful test

clipping of newspaper report

On the US radio show All Things Considered 24 November 2009, I heard a remarkable story about an individual who, after many years in a comatose state, reportedly began to communicate.

Twenty-three years ago, a Belgian car-crash victim [Rom Houben] was diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. But doctors now say he appears to have been conscious the whole time. The man is now communicating using a special touchscreen. Neurologist Steven Laureys, who leads the Coma Science Group at the University of Liege in Belgium, says people in non-communicative states are misdiagnosed up to 40 percent of the time.

The means of communicating sounds vaguely familiar: Communication by typing while someone (a “faciliator?”) supports one’s arm? Today the story is in the local newspaper (click image at right). Fortunately, some coverage of the story reveals skepticism about the source of Mr. Houben’s communications. See Professor Arthur Caplan’s comments in the Associated Press article linked in the image here and his comments from MSNBC. See, also, coverage by Brandon Keim in Wired and Rob Quinn in Newser.

I wish Mr. Houben and his family well, but I hope Dr. Laureys will test whether Mr. Houben can answer questions correctly when the people supporting his hand during typing cannot see the touch screen.

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John Lloyd

John Lloyd--founder and lead editor for

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