Sonic stimulation used to 'jump-start' coma patient's brain

Researchers plan to test the method with more patients at UCLA Medical Center this fall.
By Stephen Feller   |   Aug. 25, 2016 at 9:05 AM

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Coma treatment and recovery usually involves a lot of waiting but scientists may have found a way to "jump-start" the brain using sonic stimulation.

A 25-year-old who was in a coma regained full consciousness and the ability to communicate within days of exposure to a small amount of acoustic energy directed at his thalamus using a small, experimental device, according to a study published in the journal Brain Stimulation.

Performance of the thalamus, the egg-shaped structure in the brain at the center of the organ's information processing functions, is often diminished in patients with impaired mental function after a coma.

While most medications prescribed for coma patients indirectly target the thalamus, previous studies in at least the last decade have suggested stimulating the thalamus could help patients with significant brain injury and coma.

Previous experiments with stimulating the thalamus have required electrodes to be implanted into the thalamus, and the surgery to do so is risky for patients.

While researchers testing the effects of the device expected a positive result, they were not expecting the man to fully understand what was going on around him, respond yes or no by nodding his head or to fist-bump one of his doctors at the end of a conversation.

"The changes were remarkable," Dr. Martin Monti, an associate professor of psychology and neurosurgery at the University of California Los Angeles, said in a press release.

The researchers, working with the man's doctors, placed the device, which is the size of a coffee cup saucer, by the side of the man's head, activating it 10 times for 30 seconds at a time during a 10-minute period.

Before the procedure, the man had minimal signs of consciousness or comprehension of speech, but by the first day after treatment his responses had significant improvement. Within three days, he was fully conscious, nodding his head in response to questions in conversation and surprised doctors with a fist-bump to say goodbye.

The researchers plan to test the device and procedure for "waking up" patients after a coma with several people later this year at the UCLA Medical Center. Their longer-term goal, however, is to incorporate the device into some type of helmet or portable version as a lower cost way to help bring people back after coma -- for which there is no effective method at this time.

Despite their success with the first patient, the researchers remain cautious about the potential for jump-starting brains on a regular basis.

"It is possible that we were just very lucky and happened to have stimulated the patient just as he was spontaneously recovering," Monti said.

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