Two more coma patients' brains jump-started with ultrasound
Five years ago, we heard how a team at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) had used ultrasound to seemingly "jump start" a patient out of a coma. At the time, the scientists wondered if such results could be repeated, or if their success was just a one-off. They have now done it two more times.
In the 2016 case, a team led by Prof. Martin Monti utilized a coffee cup saucer-sized device to deliver stimulating pulses of low-intensity focused ultrasound to the thalamus of a 25 year-old coma patient. The thalamus acts as the brain's central processing hub, and it is typically weakened in coma patients.
After receiving the treatment, the patient improved dramatically. Whereas he previously only showed minimal signs of consciousness, he was now fully awake, able to understand questions, and capable of responding by shaking or nodding his head. At the time, though, the researchers wondered if they might have just gotten lucky – they may have treated the patient at the same time that he was coming out of the coma on his own, or his brain might have been uniquely receptive to the treatment.
Now, though, Monti and colleagues have announced that they recently experienced two more successes.
One case involved a 56 year-old man who had been in a minimally conscious state for over 14 months since suffering a stroke. After his first ultrasound treatment, he was consistently able to drop or grasp a ball when told to do so, and to look toward either of two photographs of relatives when their names were mentioned. After the second treatment, he was additionally able to raise a bottle to his mouth, use a pen and paper, and to verbally communicate.
The second case involved a 50 year-old woman who had been in an even less conscious state ever since she experienced a cardiac arrest two and a half years earlier. After her first treatment, she was able to recognize objects such as a comb and a pencil – something she hadn't been able to do since entering her coma.
In both cases, treatment consisted of placing the ultrasound device on the side of the patient's head, then activating it 10 times for 30 seconds each within a 10-minute period. Both patients underwent two such sessions, spaced a week apart. The scientists state that the treatment is safe and produces no unwanted side effects, as the relatively small amount of energy emitted by the device is less than that used in a traditional Doppler ultrasound scan.
It should be noted that the treatment had no effect on a third patient, a 58 year-old man who had been in a coma for five and a half years after being in a car accident. Nonetheless, the scientists are pleased with the two successes they did have.
"What is remarkable is that both exhibited meaningful responses within just a few days of the intervention," says Monti. "This is what we hoped for, but it is stunning to see it with your own eyes. Seeing two of our three patients who had been in a chronic condition improve very significantly within days of the treatment is an extremely promising result."
Additional studies are now being planned. The scientists state that a portable commercial version of the device – which could be routinely used in hospitals or even in patients' homes – probably won't be available for at least another few years.
A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Brain Stimulation.