Researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles successfully jumpstarted the brain of a man in coma using ultrasound. The 25-year-old man has regained full consciousness and full language comprehension after the treatment.
As reported in the journal Brain Stimulation, the patient initially showed only minimal signs of being conscious and speech comprehension, performing only a limited range of motion when asked. To improve the man’s condition, the research team used a non-invasive technique called low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation, which involved placing a device as big as a coffee cup saucer on the side of the man’s head to target his thalamus. This is crucial for processing information.
The device was activated 10 times for 30 seconds each within a 10-minute period. This released a small sphere of acoustic energy, which is less than a conventional Doppler ultrasound, to excite and stimulate brain tissues.
After the treatment, the 25-year-old was able to reliably communicate. The researchers observed that he was able to respond by nodding his head. He was even able to fistbump his physicians.
The same effects can only be currently achieved through deep brain stimulation, which involves directly implanting electrodes in a patient’s brain. However, unlike the ultrasound approach, this invasive procedure is a risky one.
Moreover, the medications currently administered to patients who came out of coma are not as promising. The researchers say that these medications target the thalamus only indirectly.
While the positive results were expected and promising, the research team asserts that further study is still needed. They assert that the low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation has to be performed on other patients to confirm its use.
Nevertheless, once its benefits are confirmed, ultrasound pulsation could be used to create portable devices to help patients in coma. This could be attached to a helmet to awaken patients in vegetative state without the need of invasive and costly procedures.