Saturday, August 04, 2007

Man regains speech, and in the words of his doctor, his personhood, after brain stimulation

A 38 year old man in a minimally conscious state, who has not spoken for six years as a result of a severe head injury, has regained the ability to speak, and, in the words of his doctor, his "personhood" and interests, after being treated with deep brain stimulation.

In his post about the New York Times article about this case, Steve Drake from Not Dead Yet describes it as a "mix of the disturbing and the hopeful." While on the one had, "it demonstrates that one technique tapped potential in one man with severe brain injury," on the other, Steve argues, the comment by Dr. Joseph Fins suggesting that the man had neither personhood nor interests before this intervention is an "unusually honest statement by a medical professional in regard to the way in which people with severe intellectual disabilities are viewed."

This is the comment by Dr. Fins, who is chief of medical ethics at Cornell and a coauthor of the study, that Steve is referring to:

"[the man] has regained his personhood, his personal agency ... the patient has amnesia and cannot fully represent his interests ... but now he's got interests to represent."

Certainly, as Steve Drake argues, Dr Finns comment can be understood as suggesting that prior to the intervention, the man did not have his personhood. In other words, Dr Finns comment that the man has regained his personhood and his agency after the intervention can be read as suggestsing that before the intervention, the man did not have it - that when the man became mute, unable to speak as the result of his accident, he lost his personhood along with his agency. After he began to speak again, after the intervention, he regained both his personhood and agency. This, of course, begs the question: if the man had his personhood prior to his accident, then where did it go after his accident and before the intervention that restored it?

Pushing the analysis a little further still, in Dr Fins comment, there is an implied link between personhood and verbal communication - prior to the intervention, when the man was minimally conscious and could not speak or move, he had neither personhood, nor agency. Now that he can speak and move, he has both. Morever, it is implied, personhood is something that a person can have one moment, and not the next. Prior to his accident, the man had personhood, after it, he didn't. He "regained" his personhood when he began to speak again.

It may, of course, not be the case that Dr Fin believes that the man had neither personhood, presence nor interests when he was unable to speak, prior to the intervention - this is but one way of reading his comment. But his comments nevertheless raise the important question of how people with severe brain injuries are viewed in the medical profession. Certainly, the case underscores that the notion of personhood is perspectival and changeable; Steve Drake clearly does not view speaking as an essential element of personhood. To the contrary, this understanding of personhood and its implications for understandings of people with severe intellectual disabilities disturbs him. Dr Fins comment reminds us that the notion that personhood entails the ability to speak is also linked to a masculinist understanding of the person as rational, autonomous, independent and disembodied, notions of the person that feminists have demonstrated have been used throughout history to devalue women and people with disabilities.

Here's the story and here's an excerpt:

The man described in the Nature study speaks in a breathy but audible voice, said Dr. Joseph Giacino, a co-lead author. He does not initiate conversations but can reply to others, typically with one to three words, said Giacino, of the JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in Edison, N.J.
Several weeks ago he recited the first half of the Pledge of Allegiance without assistance, Giacino said.

The man also recovered some movement. He can demonstrate motions such as brushing his teeth, said study lead author Dr. Nicholas Schiff of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. He can't actually carry out that task because the tendons in his arms contracted after years of immobility.