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News Briefs

Unresponsive Brain-Damaged Patients May Actually be Aware

Thousands of brain-damaged people who are treated as if they are almost completely unaware may in fact hear and register what is going on around them but be unable to respond, a new brain imaging study suggests.

The findings, if repeated in follow-up experiments, could have sweeping implications for determining the best care for these patients. Some experts said the study, which appeared Monday in the journal Neurology, could also have consequences for legal cases, when parties dispute the mental state of a patient who is unresponsive.

The research showed that brain-imaging technology could be a powerful tool to help doctors and family members determine whether a person had lost all awareness or was still somewhat mentally engaged, experts said.

“This study gave me goose bumps, because it shows this possibility of this profound isolation, that these people are there, that they’ve been there all along, even though we’ve been treating them as if they’re not,” said Dr. Joseph Fins, chief of the medical ethics division of New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Center. Fins was not involved in the study but collaborates with its authors on other projects.

Other experts warned that the new research was more suggestive than conclusive, and that it did not mean that unresponsive people with brain damage were more likely to recover or that treatment was yet possible.

U.N. Suspends Two Officials In Oil-For-Food Scandal

The United Nations has suspended the former head of the oil-for-food aid program in Iraq and another senior official who helped select the program’s contractors. The move comes after an interim report by an independent commission on Thursday that severely criticized the conduct of both men.

The men -- Benon V. Sevan, a Cypriot official who ran the program until its end in 2003, and Joseph J. Stephanides, a senior official on the Security Council staff who supervised contractor selection -- will continue to receive pay, said Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for Secretary-General Kofi Annan SM ’72. The decision was made Friday, and both men were told then, he said.

The suspensions are the first disciplinary measures against current or former U.N. employees prompted by the independent inquiry, led by Paul A. Volcker and tasked with investigating corruption and mismanagement in the aid program.

Both men have denied any wrongdoing. In a statement issued by his lawyer on Thursday, Sevan, who is now retired, said he had “never accepted anything from anyone.”

Asked why the men had been suspended with pay, instead of dismissed or suspended without pay, a senior official said Sunday that the Secretariat apparently did not feel Volcker had presented enough evidence to justify such penalties.

Rat Research Helps Explain Stress

Colorado researchers have identified a function of a part of the brain in rats that helps explain why some events are more stressful than others.

The discovery, they say, could help explain why humans have such different reactions to stress and could eventually lead to new ways to treat people with post-traumatic stress and other disorders.

“We think with humans, the parallel is exact,” said Steve Maier, a co-author of the new study and University of Colorado psychologist.

“This is novel. It’s very interesting,” said Doug Bremner, a neurobiologist at Emory University in Atlanta who is trying to understand the biological basis of extreme stress in people.

Decades ago, researchers in Maier’s laboratory discovered that a rat’s physical response to stress depended on whether the animal could control the stressor or not. Rats shocked at random, without control, showed far worse stress symptoms: They fell sick more often and displayed “learned helplessness.” The creatures became despondent, and couldn’t learn simple tricks to avoid the shocks, said researcher Jose Amat.

Rats given a way to stop the shocks, by pressing a lever, for example, had a much easier time of it, even when shocked just as frequently, Amat said.

Riggs Sues PNC For Cancelling Merger Deal

A proposed merger between the Riggs National Corp. and the PNC Financial Services Group collapsed Monday amid a disagreement over the price PNC was willing to pay and a money-laundering investigation involving transactions at Riggs’ banking subsidiary.

Riggs responded to the failed negotiations by suing PNC, charging that it had no grounds for ending the talks and asking a superior court judge in Washington to compel PNC either to complete the merger or to pay Riggs for damages incurred as a result of the unsuccessful transaction.

PNC, based in Pittsburgh, originally offered to pay Riggs about $24.25 a share in a $779 million takeover announced last July, two days after the release of a Senate report detailing possibly illicit financial deals involving a corrupt government in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea as well as years of suspicious dealings with Chile’s former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

According to Riggs’ lawsuit, PNC wanted to restructure the merger agreement and pay about $19.32 a share, or about $610 million, and PNC wanted to be able to lower the price even more depending on how Riggs settled outstanding private lawsuits.