"We were surprised to see such robust activity in his brain," said Alon Friedman, head of the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. "The information is getting in and is getting processed. He hears what they are saying. To what extent he understands, we cannot say for sure. ..."
Sharon was at the height of his political power in early 2006 when a devastating stroke incapacitated him. He has been in a deep coma ever since, connected to a respirator. His family has said he sometimes opens his eyes and moves his fingers, but little else has been disclosed about his condition. No one has suggested that his cognitive functions have returned.
Last week, a team of Israeli and U.S. scientists performed a series of tests on him at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, using a newly developed functional MRI to assess his brain function. Friedman said the two-hour procedure was among the first of its type to be conducted on someone who had suffered such a brain hemorrhage. It is also rare to perform such tests on someone Sharon's age, he said.
Friedman would not disclose additional information about Sharon's medical state or say whether there had been any physical reactions to the stimuli. He said the findings would provide solace to Sharon's sons, Gilad and Omri, giving them confirmation that their father could hear them. Omri Sharon declined comment Monday when contacted by the Associated Press.
Raanan Gissin, a long-time Sharon confidante, said those close to the former leader were encouraged by the tests.
"The hope is not that he will return to be the leader that he was, but basically the hope ... that Sharon will return to normal life," he said. "The people of Israel really feel gratitude toward Sharon, and they think he deserves to end his life like a normal person."
Experts doubted that would happen.