updated 11/4/2003 5:23:04 PM ET 2003-11-04T22:23:04

A small study suggests that some brain-damaged, vegetative patients may have greater awareness than doctors previously thought.

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The findings could have a bearing on right-to-die cases such as the one involving Terri Schiavo, who suffered severe brain damage in 1990 and is the subject of a family dispute over whether she should remain alive.

The researcher who conducted the study said the results could lead to changes in how patients like Schiavo are diagnosed and treated.

Other scientists call the work provocative but far from proof, and say the findings would need to be duplicated in larger studies before they could be put into routine practice.

The study involved just four severely brain-damaged patients who appeared to have been in vegetative states for at least a year. Electrodes placed on their heads detected brain waves indicating some level of awareness in three of the patients when they were presented with nonsensical sentences, said brain researcher John Connolly of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

He said he has found similar results in about 20 other patients.

The findings should be interpreted cautiously but not discounted because sometimes significant research “starts with small observations,” said Dr. David Good, a Wake Forest University neurologist who was not involved in Connolly’s study.

Dr. Keith Chiappa, director of the EEG lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, agreed the study may have merit and needs further investigation.

Connolly prepared data on the four patients for presentation this week at the Society for Psychophysiological Research meeting in Chicago.

The brain waves he found would probably not be present in patients who have been incapacitated as long as Schiavo, who suffered severe brain damage in 1990 and is the subject of a family dispute over whether she should remain alive.

But Connolly said such patients should undergo the tests just to be sure.

If the brain waves are detected early enough after an injury, some degree of rehabilitation might be possible, Connolly said, citing a patient not included in his study.

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