This is a wonderful story for the media. But to this neurologist, and I would think to any critically-thinking journalist, some questions come to mind. The biggest problem with this case as presented is that the finger-typing of Mr. Houben looks suspiciously like facilitated communication (FC is the technique of holding a patient’s hand to “help” them communicate by pointing to letters on a board.)
Unfortunately, FC was promoted prior to proper scientific validation. When it was studied in properly controlled blinded trials it turned out the the facilitator, and not the client, was doing all the communicating. FC is nothing but a well-meaning delusion. But it is also a dangerous one – FC testimony has led to the false conviction of adults accused of abuse.
My best guess is that Dr. Laureys is correct about the preserved cortical activity, but he is simply not familiar with the phenomenon of FC (he did not sound familiar on the interview) and has been deceived by it. If this is so, then the FC is an unfortunate distraction from this case (and getting disproportionate attention from the media). It is also, in my opinion, a further abuse of this patient. Mr. Houben, if he is truly conscious, has now been deprived once again of his ability to communicate – usurped by a facilitator, who will be communicating in his name (and even writing a book, we are told). Never underestimate the ability for pseudoscience to make a bad situation worse.
Here is a new video in which Houben clearly has his eyes closed while the “facilitator” is typing furiously. This is completely impossible. (Hat tip to Orac for the link – he has also discussed the case.)
Read the entire article from Science-Based medicine here.