'Significant Brain Activity' in Comatose Ariel Sharon
Sharon was a divisive figure in Israeli politics during his time as prime minister
Jethro Mullen CNN
January 28, 2013(CNN) -- Doctors in Israel said Monday that they had detected "significant brain activity" during tests on former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering a brain hemorrhage seven years ago.
During two hours of tests late last week, brain scientists showed Sharon pictures of his family, had him listen to his son's voice and employed tactile stimulation. They were surprised when scans indicated his brain was processing the stimuli appropriately.
Sharon, 84, was a divisive figure in Israeli politics. A former army officer, as prime minister he supported the expansion of Jewish settlements, but in 2005 orchestrated a military and civilian withdrawal of settlers from Gaza.
After he suffered the massive stroke in 2006, he was declared permanently incapacitated and had been presumed to be in a vegetative state.
But the team of medical researchers from Israeli and U.S. institutions used recently developed methods to assess his brain's responsiveness at Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba.
Tests to determine Sharon's level of consciousness turned up "some encouraging signs," the scientists said, but they were "subtle and not as strong."
"Information from the external world is being transferred to the appropriate parts of Mr. Sharon's brain," said Martin Monti, a professor in the departments of psychology and neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles. "However, the evidence does not as clearly indicate whether Mr. Sharon is consciously perceiving this information."
Dr. Ilan Shalef, head of medical imaging at Soroka University Medical Center, told CNN on Monday that Sharon's reactions are hard to interpret.
"Some people in vegetative states respond on a metabolic level, but cannot respond in a way that people can see," Shalef said.
One "can't be optimistic on a prognosis" like this, the doctor said. "He's been in a very bad situation for years. But it is a comfort to his family that, on some level, they are getting through to him."
The tests performed on Sharon were developed by Monti and his colleagues. They use functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to measure brain responses.
If there is any sign that Sharon can somehow understand what's happening, it would be a major event in Israel.
Sharon is a storied character. He rose up through the ranks of the Israeli army in the 1940s and he was involved in nearly every major conflict that Israel waged with its Arab neighbors.
He was first elected to Israel's parliament, the Knesset, in 1974, serving in several ministerial roles.
As minister of defense in 1982, Sharon orchestrated Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a military operation that killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians as Israeli forces sought to wipe out Palestine Liberation Organization fighters in the region.
His visit in September 2000 to a holy site in Jerusalem -- known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount -- set off clashes between Palestinians and Israelis that developed into the Second Intifada, or uprising.
Several months later voters elected him as prime minister by the largest margin of victory in Israeli history.
In 2003, he held talks with Palestinian officials about the U.S.-led "Road Map to Peace" that called for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.
He broke from the right-wing party Likud in November 2005 to form a new centrist political party, Kadima, which means "forward" in Hebrew.
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