Research at Western University is creating pioneering procedures to help understand what's going on in the minds of people who can't communicate.

A study published Monday found that a man who had been in a vegetative state for more than a decade was able to respond to yes or no questions.

It's a question that's tantalized Hollywood and medical science - What's going on in our brains and just how much do we understand when we can't communicate?

Dr. Lorina Naci of Western’s Brain and Mind Institute led a study of a man who was in a vegetative state for 12 years following a car accident.

The patient was asked a series of yes or no questions and his responses were tracked with the use of a sophisticated fMRI scanner.

Naci says the results were remarkable “We asked him a question like ‘Are you in the hospital?’ Then we presented either the word yes or no. By just using the power of his attention, the patient was able to select the correct answers to several questions."

Images taken show areas of the patient's brain that lit up in response to the questions, as Naci describes it "Here it would be ‘Are you in a supermarket?’…Here he answers ‘No’ to the question.”

The research opens up the possibility that people in a vegetative state can, not only communicate, but communicate their wishes as far as their medical treatment is concerned.

For the family of the patient involved, the study had very personal meaning.

Naci adds “What we're trying to do here is to give patients more options in the way they can ‘talk’ to us…In the case of this patient the family was very rejoiced to learn that their long-held intuitions were true."

It is also hoped the technique will help detect who may have been misdiagnosed as being in a vegetative state when they are actually behaviourally nonresponsive.

The study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.