Book-Writing Man In Coma Fails Communication Test

Rom Houben i i

Rom Houben and his mother Josephine Nicolaas Houben are pictured at a Belgian hospital in Nov. 2009. Matt Slocum/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Slocum/AP
Rom Houben

Rom Houben and his mother Josephine Nicolaas Houben are pictured at a Belgian hospital in Nov. 2009.

Matt Slocum/AP

A few months back the world was gripped by reports that a Belgian man initially thought to be in a vegetative state was instead conscious and even working on a book.

But further tests show the man, Rom Houben, was unable to correctly identify simple words and objects presented to him by researchers, his neurologist Steven Laureys tells NPR's Jon Hamilton.

The results undermine hopes that Houben, hurt in a car crash more than 20 years ago, was able to communicate with his family and health care workers.

Houben had passed previous quizzes, but the difference this time was that a facilitator, who helped him type answers on a computer screen, wasn't present when the mystery objects and words were presented.

Laureys and colleagues at the Coma Science Group at the University of Liege have been testing whether facilitated communication, a technique by which intermediaries aid weak or injured people by moving their hands on keyboards or screens, could work in adults with traumatic brain injuries. The approach has been faulted before in other patients, such as autistic children.

Laureys showed the first results of his group's research on facilitated communication at a scientific meeting in London last week. "We presented three cases after traumatic brain injury," Laureys told NPR. "Two failed the test and that was including Rom." The German magazine Der Spiegel reported on the reversal in a recent story about communicating with people in vegetative states.

Yale neurologist Steven Novella, a prolific blogger, wrote skeptically in November about the claims after watching video of Houben, who was writing too fast to be believe. "The only thing I am certain about in this case is that the typing out of messages through [facilitated communication] is bogus," Novella wrote.

Novella told NPR he wasn't surprised by the turnabout given the video evidence. You can hear Jon Hamilton's report on Wednesday's All Things Considered.



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