Vegetative, But Not, Perhaps, Unconscious

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | September 23, 2009

When Dr. Bekinschtein did trace conditioning experiments on healthy, conscious volunteers, who were distracted by a silent movie as they were getting puffs to the eyes, he found that those who seemed to pay more attention to the tone and air puff were more likely to learn to blink pre-emptively when the correct tone sounded.

"People who tell you details about the relationship between the tone and air puff show more learning [measured in eye blinks] than those who cannot tell you. There's a good agreement between conscious report and the stimuli we are using," he says.

Dr. Bekinschtein says that since the paper was published, he has gotten letters arguing that flies must now be conscious, as they can also demonstrate trace conditioning learning. But Dr. Bekinschtein cautions that trace conditioning in non-mammals might depend on vastly simpler neural processes, and that "in humans, [trace conditioning learning] correlates quite well [with consciousness]: people who don't show conscious processing, don't use learning."

Nonetheless, Dr. Bekinschtein says that while his team is "sure about the learning and recovery" findings, whether trace conditioning is related to consciousness is open for discussion.

Meanwhile, Dr. Bekinschtein hopes to expand his study into a proper clinical trial, as he hopes his technique could be used to help identify patients who might make better recoveries.

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