MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A few months ago, we reported on a man in Belgium named Rom Houben. He was said to be writing a book more than 20 years after doctors concluded that a car crash had left him in a vegetative state. He gained international fame for supposedly revealing his innermost thoughts through a technique called facilitated communication. Well, now it looks like those initial reports were wrong. Houben's doctor says a scientific test has shown that his patient cannot answer even simple questions.
NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.
JON HAMILTON: Facilitated communication occurs when a so-called facilitator supports the hand or arm of an impaired person and helps them use a keyboard or other device. Lots of studies have found that the technique is unreliable. One way or another, the facilitator is communicating, not the impaired person.
But Dr. Steven Laureys, the lead neurologist on Rom Houben's case, sounded like a believer when he spoke with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host Melissa Block. Here is Laureys, who leads the Coma Science Group at the University of Liege, describing the first time he tested his patient's ability to communicate through a facilitator.
Dr. STEVEN LAUREYS (Coma Science Group, University of Liege): Showing him different object and asking him afterwards what I have been showing him. So the first word he communicated to me was the word key, my car keys that I just showed him.
HAMILTON: Laureys now says he was uncomfortable with some of what he said in that interview. And since then he has tested Houben and some other patients more rigorously. A few days ago, Laureys and his research team presented the results of those tests at a scientific meeting in the U.K. Laureys says they showed the patient an object or spoke a word. The facilitator was out of the room. Then the facilitator was brought back in to help the patient answer questions.
Dr. LAUREYS: We presented three cases after traumatic brain injury, two failed the test, and that was including Rom.
HAMILTON: The man who was supposed to be writing a novel could not even identify an apple through facilitated communication. Laureys says it's possible Houben passed the earlier test with car keys, which took place years ago, because his facilitator had been in the room and saw the object. Laureys says he tried repeatedly to confirm the result with Houben's original facilitator but the results were always inconclusive.
Dr. LAUREYS: If you have answers like, I don't want to do the test or you don't trust me, those kinds of answers, well, then, you cannot say anything.
HAMILTON: The recent tests were done with a different facilitator who was prepared to take part in the more rigorous experiment. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University, says he's not surprised by any of this.
Dr. STEVEN NOVELLA (Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University): Steven Laureys is a legitimate researcher and neurologist. I think he just wasn't familiar with facilitated communication and that bit him in the behind.
HAMILTON: Novella says Laureys was trying to make an important point: that many patients are misdiagnosed as being vegetative. But he says miraculous recoveries are extremely rare.
Dr. NOVELLA: This is the story that always gets told on dramas. That some person is in a coma and they wake from their coma. But it's a very distorted view of reality and unfortunately the Rom Houben case played right into that.
HAMILTON: Novella says Houben may well be conscious. But there's no evidence he's able to write a book.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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