Medical Decision Making by Patients in the Locked-in Syndrome

Neuroethics 13 (2):229-238 (2018)
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Abstract

The locked-in syndrome is a state of profound paralysis with preserved awareness of self and environment who typically results from a brain stem stroke. Although patients in LIS have great difficulty communicating, their consciousness, cognition, and language usually remain intact. Medical decision-making by LIS patients is compromised, not by cognitive impairment, but by severe communication impairment. Former systems of communication that permitted LIS patients to make only “yes” or “no” responses to questions was sufficient to validate their consent for simple medical decisions but not for consequential medical decisions such as whether to refuse further life-sustaining therapy. Emerging technologies including computer-tracking assistance of retained partial motor function and brain-computer interfaces promise to improve the communication ability of LIS patients and, when better developed, will allow them to fully exercise their right to actively participate in consequential medical decisions about their own medical care. Although so-called “covert cognition” patients clinically diagnosed as vegetative state that are shown to be aware by functional neuroimaging maybe metaphorically considered locked-in, it is nosologically more coherent not to categorize them formally as LIS.

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