Seven years after a massive stroke removed him from office and left him in a vegetative state, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is able to process information and has exhibited "robust activity" in his brain, according to doctors who conducted recent tests.
Though some hoped Sharon might regain consciousness and resume his life, experts warned that was highly unlikely.
The medical team that tested him last week said Monday that the scans showed the 84-year-old Sharon responding to pictures of his family and recordings of his son's voice. They cautioned, however, it is not clear how much he understood, stressing the chances of his regaining full capacities are almost zero.
"We were surprised to see such robust activity in his brain," said Dr. 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 ... but there are encouraging hints that he does."
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 when contacted by The Associated Press Monday.
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.
Dr. Ilan Shelef, head of medical imaging at Soroka University Medical Center, sought to temper expectations from the results of Thursday's scans.
"What is very important to understand is that we have a snapshot of what happened" during the test, said Shelef, who participated in the testing. "He received some stimuli from his family and he responded to these stimuli. It was a metabolic response in the brain," he said. "Metabolic" refers to physical reactions.
"We don't know what happened two years ago or four years ago and we have no idea what will happen in the future," he said. "We just know that on Thursday evening there was a metabolic response in the brain of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon."
Dr. Nicholas Schiff, professor of neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College, called the findings "interesting but ambiguous" and warned against reading too much into the tests.
Schiff, who did not participate in the testing and said he had not reviewed the research, said the FMRI is a widely used tool used for gathering data, but there is no consensus among researchers on interpreting the results. "In general, there are very few uses of FMRIs that unequivocally demonstrate awareness in patients that appear unresponsive," he said.
Sharon was a highly decorated military officer who fought in three wars before entering politics in the 1970s and serving in a series of top ministerial posts. He was elected prime minister in 2001 and led Israel for the next five years until he was incapacitated.
Shortly before his stroke, he directed a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, ending a 38-year military occupation of the territory, bolted his hard-line Likud Party and established the centrist Kadima Party. He appeared on his way to an easy re-election when he suffered the stroke. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, took over and was elected prime minister a few months later.
Sharon had a first, small stroke in December 2005 and was put on blood thinners before experiencing a severe brain hemorrhage on Jan. 4, 2006. After spending months in the Jerusalem hospital where he was initially treated, Sharon was transferred to the long-term care facility at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.
After his second stroke, doctors performed several extensive emergency brain operations to stop cerebral hemorrhaging. After a long stay at the hospital, he was taken for a brief period to his home in southern Israel. He was rushed at least once into intensive care for dialysis after his kidneys began failing.