A man who has been in a vegetative state for 16 years shows signs that he understands movies, researchers said.

An fMRI scan of the man’s brain revealed patterns of activity similar to the control group of 12 healthy participants.

From the Deepest Coma, New Brain Activity Found

“It was actually indistinguishable from a healthy participant watching the movie,” researcher Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, told Nature.

Since using fMRI to identify consciousness in patients thought to be in vegetative states, Owen and colleagues think that around one in five people thought to be brain-dead actually have conscious brain activity. This new study shows promise for being able to determine brain activity in an even simpler format.

“It is a stimulus that engages attention naturally, and it’s impossible not to follow — especially when you have an engaging movie from a masterful director like Hitchcock,” study co-author and neuroscientist Lorina Naci told Nature.

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Patients in vegetative states aren’t in comas, although they are not able to interact with their environment.

“By definition, vegetative patients are not able to give any meaningful responses,” Dr. Romer Geocadin, associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins told Discovery last year. “Vegetative patients are able to regain the ability to ‘wake’ up, but their brains are never able to interact with the environment or be aware. However, a vegetative patient can recover to a point that they can answer simple questions or follow simple commands. When they are able to do this, they are in a state known as minimally conscious … at that time they are still severely incapacitated, but many may be able to respond to questions of prolonged life support.”

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The news was especially welcomed by the 34-year-old patient’s father, who takes his son to the movies every week. The researchers hope the movie method could be used to help people in similar states.

Photo: Alfred Hitchcock. Credit: Getty Images