A new test involving music can help doctors figure out if patients are minimally conscious or in a full vegetative state.

All right. Let's get it out of the way right at the start. A musical test to assess brain damage? Doesn't that sound like a punch line?

But seriously, folks, the brain is a complex organ that can get messed up in a variety of ways. Some people are in a minimally conscious state but do not respond to outside stimulus. Other patients have certain behaviors that can make them seem awake but perform them at random, without having any real response to their environment. Doctors need to be sure about what their patient's condition is before they take action or inform families of their chances of survival.


A new test involving a series of musical notes and electroencephalogram, has been able to separate out vegetative states from minimally conscious states or healthy states in forty-three individuals. The patient is hooked up to an electroencephalogram, so their brain activity is monitored. Doctors then play the patients a number of tones, with sudden changes in pitch. When the pitch changes, every patient's brain had the same response; the temporal cortex would send a message to the frontal cortex. This is basically a signal asking, "This is happening. What should we do?" The frontal cortex is the place where personality and awareness of socially acceptable behaviors are housed. Depending on the person's brain, when it receives a signal about a change in pitch, the frontal cortex will either reply, "Clap, you idiot," or "No. This guy is ripping off early Lou Reed. Don't encourage him by clapping."

Healthy or even minimally conscious individuals will have a frontal lobe that replies to the temporal cortex, even if the reply doesn't (or can't) cause the patient to have any visible response. Individuals whose brains have been so badly damaged that they're in a vegetative state will still send out the signal from the temporal cortex, but will get no response. This test may help doctors assess an unresponsive patient accurately, giving them (and the patient's family) clues as to what to do next.

[Via ScienceMag]