CHICAGO – Doctors have succeeded in “jump-starting” the brain of a man who had been barely conscious for six years with electrical stimulation of the brain, making it possible for him to speak a little and take food by mouth, doctors reported Wednesday.
The 38-year-old man, whose identity was not released, had been in what is called a minimally conscious state for six years after suffering brain injury in an assault. He retained some language capability but was unable to communicate reliably beyond brief gestures and silent mouthing of words. Usually his eyes were closed and he had no coordinated motor movements.
On Wednesday morning the patient’s mother tearfully described the improvements she has observed after electrodes were implanted in his brain.
“My son can now speak, watch a movie without falling asleep, drink from a cup,” she said. “He can express pain, can cry and laugh.”
The authors of a case study published today in the journal Nature and outside observers were quick to point out the therapy has only been shown effective in a single person. People in a persistent vegetative state are highly unlikely to be helped by the technique, they warned, and it is unknown to what extent the stimulation can help even other minimally conscious patients.
“It is way too early for us to know if this is actually going to be applicable to people who are in this situation,” said Dr. Felise Zollman, medical director of the brain injury medicine and rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, who was not involved in the study.
Still, neurosurgeon Dr. Ali R. Rezai, a member of the research team from the Cleveland Clinic, called the achievement a new chapter in treating patients with brain injury. “Hopefully, we can reconnect people with loved ones,” he said.
For six years following the patient’s injury, doctors said, he had shown no progress in his ability to communicate or orient toward objects in his environment consistently.
But when the electrodes were implanted and activated in 2004, he immediately appeared more alert and moved his head toward people who were speaking. Since then, he has shown further improvement in speech, movement and the ability to swallow food.
“The most compelling change seen in the last six weeks is that he is able to say the first 16 words of the Pledge of Allegiance without prompting,” said neurologist Dr. Joseph T. Giacino, an author of the study.
The patient also now is capable of coordinated movements such as bringing a cup to his mouth and brushing his hair, though some motor difficulties remain because of his long inactivity. He can chew and swallow food, while previously he had to be fed via a tube.