Doubt Cast on Man Found to Be Conscious After 23-Year Coma

Remember that story about the guy who was supposedly revealed to be fully conscious (but physically paralyzed) and not in a 23-year coma? There are some serious concerns about the validity of that discovery, with some calling it bogus.

The problem lies in the main tool used to sniff out the man's supposedly active brain, a technique called facilitated communication. Facilitated communication, in which a helper assists a physically disabled but mentally capable person to type out his or her thoughts, has been widely discredited for decades, after independent tests revealed that the technique is totally unreliable and often the result, conscious or not, of the assistant typing, not the patient. Basically, assistants would often pick up a patient's hand and jam the patient's finger into the keyboard, which I think we can all agree is not the most reliable form of communication.

If facilitated communication is part of this, and it appears to be, then I don't trust it," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "I'm not saying the whole thing is a hoax, but somebody ought to be checking this in greater detail. Any time facilitated communication of any sort is involved, red flags fly.

Ultimately, there is definitely more brain activity in this particular case than was first thought; the patient, Rom Houben, is able to indicate yes and no with a slight movement of his foot. But the elaborate, heartbreaking and eloquent notes he supposedly wrote through facilitated communication could well be totally bogus. [Wired]