Vegetative patients who cannot communicate with the outside world still seem able to learn, research has shown.
In the Cambridge University study, researchers 'taught' such patients to associate a sound with air being blown into their eyes. After a period of training, the patients started to blink when the tone was played but before they experienced the air puff.This level of learning requires conscious awareness of the relationship between different stimuli - in other words, knowing that the sound precedes and predicts the air puff into the eye. The same ability was not seen in volunteers who had been 'put to sleep' under anaesthetic.
It suggested that the patients could form memories and may benefit from rehabilitation, according to the scientists.