Electrodes stir brain of barely conscious man

The Baltimore Sun

Doctors have succeeded in "jump-starting" the brain of a man who had been barely conscious for six years with electrical stimulation, making it possible for him to speak a little and take food by mouth, doctors report.

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.

Yesterday the patient's mother tearfully described the improvements she observed after electrodes were implanted in his brain: "My son can now speak, watch a movie without falling asleep, drink from a cup. 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 been shown effective in only 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 any other 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 brain injury medicine and rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, who was not involved in the study.

Deep brain stimulation involves implanting electrodes to jolt select portions of the brain. It is already approved for the treatment of symptoms associated with Parkinson's disease and is in trials to test its effectiveness in treating epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.

Robert Mitchum writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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