In the future, a coma may no longer have to be a death sentence waiting to happen. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles have found some success in using ultrasound to ‘jumpstart’ parts of the brains of people in coma-like conditions. This helped reawaken certain functions in patients who had previously been in a “minimally conscious state” (MCS).
This isn’t the first study of its kind. In 2016, a 25-year-old-coma patient regained consciousness after applying the same technology to his brain.
The results were published online in the journal Brain Stimulation on Jan. 15. Two 10-minute treatment sessions were given to three MCS patients, with a week between each session.
The method uses ultrasound stimulation to excite the neurons in the thalamus, which functions as a processing hub for the whole brain and is typically weakened after a coma.
Two out of the three MCS patients with severe brain injuries showed remarkable improvements after the treatment. The researchers used a device “about the size of a [teacup] saucer” that creates acoustic energy, which they aimed at different regions of the brain to excite the tissues. The device was set beside the patients’ head and activated for 10 times for 30 seconds each in a 10-minute period.
“I consider this new result much more significant because these chronic patients were much less likely to recover spontaneously than the acute patient we treated in 2016 – and any recovery typically occurs slowly over several months and more typically years, not over days and weeks, as we show,” says neuroscientist Martin Monti, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
“It’s very unlikely that our findings are simply due to spontaneous recovery.”
One of the patients that had a positive response to the treatment was a 56-year-old man, who had been in a MCS for more than 14 months, unable to communicate at all. After treatment, he could not only recognize his relatives on photos when their names were mentioned, he could also drop or grasp a ball on demand. When asked simple questions about his identity, he was able to shake his head ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
The other patient to show signs was a 50-year-old woman, who had been in a MCS for more than two-and-a-half years. After the ultrasound sessions, she was able to understand speech and recognise basic objects, including a pencil and a comb.
Researchers say the technique is safe as it only uses a small amount of energy, and there were no changes to the blood pressure, heart rates, or blood oxygen levels of the patients.
“This is what we hoped for, but it is stunning to see it with your own eyes,” says Monti. “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.”
Although the research is still in its early stages, the results are very encouraging. There are definite signs that this kind of treatment could help some patients.
“Importantly, these behaviours are diagnostic markers of emergence from a disorder of consciousness,” says Monti. “For these patients, the smallest step can be very meaningful – for them and their families. To them it means the world.”
Monti hopes that in the future, they’ll figure out a way to make this technology portable so that it could be used to “wake up” patients who are in MCS at home, and not just at hospitals.