Feb 15 2010

Dr. Laureys Admits Facilitated Communication Failure

I have been covering the story of Dr. Steven Laureys, a Belgium neurologist whose research involves disorders of consciousness, and his most famous patient, Rom Houben. Houben is a 46 year old man who is the victim of a car accident at the age of 23. For the latter half of his life he has been in an apparent persistent vegetative state -except recently it was discovered that he has more brain activity (almost normal) than expected.

So Dr. Laureys attempted to establish communication with Houben as if Houben were in a locked in state – someone who is conscious but paralyzed. All they could get Houben to move was his foot to depress a pedal, and that could theoretically be used to answer yes/no questions. But Houben has too much spasticity and he could not lift his foot off the pedal.

This is where the story gets interesting, and where it became an international controversy. Enter Linda Wouters – a speech therapist who uses facilitated communication (FC). She claimed that after months of training she could communicate with Houbens by sensing the subtle movements of his right hand, which he could use to direct her across a computer screen keyboard.

FC, unfortunately, is pure pseudoscience. It was introduced in the late 1980s as a wonderful new method for communicating with children with cognitive disorders, on the assumption that they were more verbally than mentally impaired. Many therapists were convinced, and many parents were overjoyed as their previously non-communicative children starting writing poetry expressing their love for their parents. (And there was also a dark side as some children, through FC, started reporting physical and sexual abuse by parents and caretakers.)

When people got around to actually testing FC scientifically it turned out, rather unequivocally, that all the communication was being done subconsciously by the facilitator – a phenomenon called the ideomotor effect. They were not just supporting the hand of their client, they were directing it. Well-designed studies showed that the facilitator was always doing all the communication. FC then shrank to a fringe phenomenon – but its adherents would not give up, and FC continues to this day (even sometimes in courtroom testimony), hoodwinking the unawares and having to be debunked all over again and again.

It is very unfortunate that Dr. Laureys was unfamiliar with FC. Had he known more about it he could have nipped this travesty in the bud. But he was taken in by it, claiming that he tested Wouters and it looked to him as if Houben was doing the communication. This story, in fact, is a good cautionary tale about why mainstream scientists need to be familiar with the pseudosciences that touch their specialty.

Regarding Rom Houben video showing Wouters performing FC with Houben clearly showed that he could not be doing the communication. In one video Houben was not even looking at the keyboard, and may not have even been awake. But in every video Wouters was moving his hand across the keyboard at unbelievable speeds – not even a neurologically intact person could direct another to keystrokes with such speed an accuracy by just moving one finger.

But to Laureys credit he promised a more thorough test – although he seemed confident such test would validate the FC communication with Houbens. Well finally we have the results of this further testing. Spiegel Online reports:

Laureys has now carried out those tests, and his results hold that it wasn’t Houben doing the writing after all. The tests determined that he doesn’t have enough strength and muscle control in his right arm to operate the keyboard. In her effort to help the patient express himself, it would seem that the speech therapist had unwittingly assumed control…

In the more recent test, Houben was shown or told a series of 15 objects and words, without a speech therapist being present. Afterward, he was supposed to type the correct word — but he didn’t succeed a single time.

Good for Laureys for doing proper tests and sharing the results with the world. This is, of course, what skeptics like myself predicted would be the results of proper testing. We also warned about the pitfall of doing less than rigorous testing, like those that initially convinced Laureys. Once again pseudoscience fails under properly designed scientific testing.

Unfortunately, is appears that Laureys’ conversion to FC skeptic is not yet complete. He is also quoted as saying,

This doesn’t necessarily discredit facilitated communication altogether. Laureys analyzed another paralyzed test subject who answered all 15 control questions correctly despite having a comparable brain-damage diagnosis. “That means it is really necessary to verify every single case,” Laureys says.

Laureys does not seem to appreciate that he is claiming here that he has overturned 20 years of FC research showing that it is not legitimate. You cannot casually claim from a single case that you have demonstrated a highly implausible phenomenon that has previously been rejected by carefully controlled studies. What are the details of this new case he is referring to? Is it really FC? I could find nothing published, and there are no further details in the report. It is possible that the reporting itself is inaccurate – this requires further follow up.

The rest of the Spiegel article deals with the very legitimate and interesting research of Laureys and others involving attempts at using various brain imaging technology to better assess, and possibly even communicate with those who are locked in or in a minimally conscious state. I discussed this research recently here. This article adds a discussion of the research of Marie Bruno – who is using EEGs (electroencephalogram) to communicate. The idea is that the EEG can detect difference in brain wave activity in different brain states voluntarily created by the subject. The method is still crude, and will likely require years of research to become useful. But it is promising.

Rom Houben’s story has grown to encapsulate the plight of those with disorders of consciousness, our attempts to better assess and communicate with them through advancing technology, and the mischief that can still be caused by lingering pseudosciences. It is truly a scandal that FC is still around. Like homeopathy, therapeutic touch, and many similar medical pseudosciences – their persistence is not a failure of science, which has adequately shown them to be nothing but illusions, but rather of collective rationality.

9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “Dr. Laureys Admits Facilitated Communication Failure”

  1. cyberdraco says:

    This makes the fourth important event so far this year showing how important skepticism is and how it isn’t used enough around the world.

    This is why I love working with children, they are not so easily duped and if they are and you show them how the trick works, they don’t become defensive and attack the persons.

    Let our curiosity live out and seek answers until our dying days.

  2. superdave says:

    As many people pointed out, if rom’s muscle strength had been ehough for the facilitator to “sense”, it would have been more than enough to use some simple emg recordings to answer yes or no questions.

  3. Eternally Learning says:

    I guess the only thing that gives me pause is that FC isn’t really claiming any kind of paranormal ability in that what is actually being proposed, given the right circumstances (patient having adequate muscle strength and control and the facilitator not actually taking over would of course be key), isn’t entirely implausible. I think with that in mind, it’s fair to say that the proponents of FC have drastically overstated, if not lied about, its effectiveness and the types of situations that it is effective in. Am I missing some facet of this concept that makes FC completely impossible though? If not, it would seem unfair to assume that this other case (undefined and unsupported as it is) must be a false positive.

  4. EL – you are correct. One can envision a case in which a person is non-verbal but conscious and who has enough strength to move somewhat, where a facilitator may help them use some communication device.

    In practice, such a case, if it even exists, is likely extremely rare. We have developed numerous methods to help people communicate, even with minimal muscle activity. So anyone who could theoretically communicate with a facilitator could communicate with one of theses devices – eliminating the middle man, as it were.

    If the arm just needs a little support – then that can be provided mechanically without the need for an active facilitator.

    In practice, the only unique role of the facilitator is to take over the actual communication.

    But there may be cases in which FC proponents use something like FC to help a person who could probably communicate on their own with the proper device – just to “authenticate” FC itself. But these cases are trumped up, and say nothing about how FC is applied to populations who cannot communicate using devices.

  5. Carl says:

    EL, in addition to what Dr. Novella wrote, note that he didn’t say it was impossible for the case to be real. He said that it was unlikely this one case would overturn 20 years of evidence that FC, by and large, is worthless and in fact actively damaging.

  6. HHC says:

    Its pretty clear to me that any studies that involve Dr. Laureys and miraculous results, e.g. FC with VS, or MCS or fMRIs with VS are bogus (use the American defintion here). His medical team is misinterpreting patients’ movements, or radiology’s statistical interpretations of the fMRIs. His work is the P.T. Barnum of neurology.

    As for interpreting EEGs with VS patients, the statistical pool of 13 is too small and the few statistically significant questions asked could be chance alone along with wishful thinking.

    Recently, reviewed the EEG monitors on a traumatic injury patient with PVS. Some healthcare professional assumed there were brain responses to their auditory stimuli. But the EEG monitor varied naturally regardless of their presence. Its the human factor of compassion which keeps us being fooled near death.

  7. trausti freyr says:

    Love to say I told you so

    Unfortunately for some people, I am not big enough of a man not to rub this into a few select snouts.

  8. arthurgolden says:

    My comment on another blog seems appropriate to also make here:

    Rom Houben’s Care Home Bans Facilitated Communication
    2010 March 2
    by samedifference1

    “…a simple scientific test. Three paralysed patients were shown objects or told words while their facilitator was out of the room, and then asked to describe them with the help of their carer. This was repeated 15 times. Mr Houben did not give any correct responses.”

    But was this “a simple scientific test” of Facilitated Communication? Or was it a test of his brain injury described by his sister as:

    “We know that sometimes people with brain injuries sometimes lose the communication between words and images, or words and function. We also know that Rom has a big problem with his memory…”

    It should be noted that one of the three paralyzed patients did pass this test and validated his Facilited Communication.

    Nearly 16 years ago my own son Ben, then age 22 and with severe autism living in his birthplace of Boston, was given this same “simple scientific test” by its apparent developer speech pathologist Howard Shane PhD of Boston’s Children’s Medical Center and this test was claimed to invalidate his use of Facilitated Communication. Although completely nonverbal, Ben had some independent means of communication, which was not tested as a possible control.

    I now wonder if this simple scientific test was really testing my son’s brain dysfunction caused by his severe autism. I am thinking of trying to validate this “simple scientific test” with my own son, using his independent means of communication. I am not so “scientific” so I plan to consult with leading scientists involved with Facilitated Communication. By the way, Ben lives at home with us his parents in Jerusalem Israel and continues to use Facilitated Communication for his very sophisticated communication. He uses his independent means of communication for more mundane matters. It is such a shame that Rom’s Care Home has banned the use of Facilitated Communication, as did almost all such facilities in the U.S. in the early 1990s based on this simple scientific test, apparently developed as part of adversarial court proceedings of sexual abuse, and not as part of pure scientific research seeking the truth.

    Arthur Golden

Leave a Reply