Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have used an ultrasound pulsation treatment to stimulate neurons in the thalamus of a 25-year-old coma patient, leading to a marked improvement in his condition. Once verified with other patients, it's possible that the method could provide a low-cost treatment for severe brain injuries.
The technique used by the research team is called low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation. Pioneered by UCLA professor Alexander Bystritsky, it involves the use of a small, coffee cup saucer-sized device that produces acoustic energy, which can be targeted at different regions of the brain, exciting tissue. The amount of energy delivered is quite small – less than that of a conventional Doppler ultrasound.
With the device placed on the side of the 25-year-old patient's head, the team applied bursts of energy to the thalamus – an egg-shaped region of the brain that acts as the central processing hub, the performance of which is usually diminished in coma patients. The treatment was applied in 30-second bursts, and repeated 10 times within a period of 10 minutes.
Prior to the procedure, there were only very minimal signs that the patient was conscious and able to understand speech. Following the treatment, he improved dramatically, regaining full consciousness and fully understanding what doctors were saying to him. Where before he was only able to make very small movements, he is now able to nod or shake his head when asked questions, and he even made a fist-bump gesture to say goodbye to one of the doctors.
Normally, the only way to achieve a similar excitation of brain tissue is to perform a high-risk, invasive surgery called deep brain stimulation. The procedure involves implanting electrodes inside the thalamus.
While the new, non-invasive treatment has produced extremely promising results, the team is only cautiously optimistic at this point.
"It is possible that we were just very lucky and happened to have stimulated the patient just as he was spontaneously recovering," said study lead author Martin Monti, an associate professor of psychology and neurosurgery at UCLA.
The team plans to further test the method later this year, applying it to several more coma patients. If those tests prove successful, then the researchers believe that a portable device, perhaps in the form of a helmet, could be designed to carry the technology, providing a low-cost method for treating coma patients.
Furthermore, the researchers believe that the method could even be effective with patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state, for whom there are currently very few treatment options.
The team published a report on the treatment in the journal Brain Stimulation.