Breakthrough to help `deep coma` victims

London: Patients in a vegetative state after a devastating brain damage could soon be able to "talk" or steer a wheelchair, says a top neuroscientist.

Adrian Owen at Cambridge University has already proved that some victims with no outward signs of awareness not only can grasp what people are uttering, but also answer simple questions.

Now he believes a new breakthrough will before long enable them to communicate using a voice synthesizer almost in "real time", and even move around using a motorised wheelchair.

Owen has already shown that using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanner one patient was able to give "yes" or "no" responses to queries, reports the Telegraph.

He and his team have gone a step further and shown that a similar response can be achieved using a much cheaper and smaller Electroencephalography (EEG) machine which measures electrical activity in the brain.

That means that for as little as 30,000 pounds they will have access to the outside world in much the same way as the scientist Stephen Hawking.

However, instead of using their cheek or eyelid to communicate, they will activate different parts of the brain.

Owen, whose team is moving from Cambridge to the University of Western Ontario, Canada, believes the new devices could be available within 10 years.

"I would never have believed that within a few years we would be actually communicating with a patient who was in a persistent vegetative state," he said.

Owen`s findings suggest that around one in five PVS (persistent vegetative state) patients may be able to communicate and will raise questions about when doctors should switch off life-support systems.

Up to 1,000 PVS patients in Britain are kept alive by doctors in the hope they may one day regain consciousness.