For families of people severely incapacitated by a traumatic brain injury, perhaps one of the worst parts is not knowing what the victim’s prognosis is. Is something of the victim’s personality and memory still “in there?” If so, will any piece of that person ever emerge again?

Researchers behind a new study believe they may have found a way to better predict if a patient with a severe TBI will improve in the next several months. The study examined 102 patients in vegetative states, minimally conscious or “locked in” — that is, conscious but paralyzed and unable to communicate.

Patients in a vegetative state are described as having no consciousness, though an fMRI scanner has been able to detect brain activity in some patients when they are asked to remember or imagine certain things. Using PET scans on 41 patients diagnosed as vegetative, the researchers behind the new study found minimal consciousness existed in 13 of them.

Within a year, the condition of nine of the 13 had improved. Only one was still in a vegetative state, while three had died. Meanwhile, none of the 28 patients for whom the PET scan had found no consciousness had made significant improvement in that time.

Overall, the PET scans predicted increased consciousness 67 percent of the time, and no improvement 92 percent of the time. This would not be a perfect prognosis tool, but could give relatives of vegetative patients a clearer picture of what to expect as the months pass.

Many severe TBIs are the result of motor vehicle accidents caused by a negligent driver. Those drivers should be held responsible for the personal injuries they cause.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “For vegetative patients, a brain scan may detect hope of recovery,” Melissa Healy, April 15, 2014