Professor Steven Laurey, a Belgian neurologist, has been awarded €1m (£850,000) to fund further work to improve diagnoses of severe brain injuries resulting in coma.
The Generet Prize is a grant from the King Baudouin Foundation, named after the former Belgian monarch. It is hoped that the research will improve the diagnosis of patients in comas – often described as persistent vegetative or minimally conscious states. Professor Laureys, who describes this as ‘a horrible term’, prefers the term ‘unresponsive wakefulness’ and describes this as a silent epidemic.
Neuro rehabilitation for patients in vegetative and minimally conscious states is possible, but varies hugely and is not, at present, well researched. In the UK, a 2016 research request showed that more than 100 people with prolonged disorders of consciousness were currently being cared for by the NHS, with more in the private sector in specialist independent neurorehabilitation services. For families, who are unable to communicate with their loved one and no way of knowing how much the patient can understand, the lack of certainty can be devastating.
Professor Laureys, head of the coma science group at Liège University Hospital leads a team of 30 researchers who have already demonstrated that some individuals described as being in a “vegetative state” are actually minimally conscious, and can understand and respond, often by making eye movements or small physical movements. Further clinical trials are planned, and a percentage of the prize funds will also go to support families and patients to adapt to life following these types of diagnoses.
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