By Rebecca Morelle
Health reporter, BBC News
Scientists have shown for the first time that a person diagnosed as being in a vegetative state can communicate.
Kate communicates through a keyboard
For Kate Bainbridge, now 36, the news is especially significant.
In 1997, when Kate was 26, she caught an acute viral infection. It was so serious that it confined her to a vegetative state for six months.
While she was in hospital, unresponsive and seemingly unaware of her surroundings, Cambridge neuroscientist Dr Adrian Owen, who went on to make this latest discovery, scanned her brain.
He showed her familiar photographs, and realised from her brain activity that she was aware of the images that had been placed in front of her.
As the months went on, and Dr Owen repeated the experiment, he found that Kate was becoming increasingly aware.
Kate says: "I don't remember the scan at all."
The first memories she had, she says, lasted for a few minutes when her occupational therapist came in.
I could not move my face, so I could not show people how scared I was
Over the weeks, she gradually became more and more aware. But, she says, it was a very scary experience.
"Not being able to communicate was awful - I felt trapped inside my body. I had loads of questions, like 'Where am I?', 'Why am I here?', 'What has happened?'.
"But I could not ask anyone - I had to work it all out.
"I could not move my face, so I could not show people how scared I was."
A ray of hope
She said the scans changed everything.
"I just have to look and see what the scans did for me. They found I was there inside my body that did not respond.
Her parents, Bill and Gill Bainbridge, whom Kate lives with in Cambridgeshire, agree.
"The scan meant an enormous amount to us," says Gill.
"Up until then it had been very difficult for us to cope with the fact that she was in this vegetative state, and although she could do small things like move her finger or twist her neck, we didn't actually know what was going on with Kate.
It really scares me to think what could have happened if I hadn't had the scan
"After the scan, the doctors were able to tell us for the first time that Kate's brain was processing things.
"That was a big breakthrough and it meant when we were doing things with her - talking to her, showing her pictures, writing her notes - we felt, even if she didn't understand, her brain was processing things.
"We realised something might be there to help her to cope with this horrendous experience she was going through."
It took Kate a further two years to recover full consciousness, and according to Gill, Kate has continued to improve over the years.
She uses a wheelchair and has some physical disabilities, but can communicate through a word-pad keyboard.
Kate thinks her recovery was spurred on by the scans.
She said: "I think the work Dr Owen is doing is so important.
"I can remember how awful it was to be like I was. It really scares me to think what could have happened if I hadn't had the scan."