NEW YORK (AP) — A brain-damaged man who could communicate only by using slight eye or thumb movements for six years can speak again, after stimulating electrodes were placed in his brain, researchers report.
The 38-year-old also regained the ability to chew and swallow, which allows him to be spoon-fed, rather than relying on nourishment through a tube in his belly.
The man, whose brain was injured during an assault, spent six years with only occasional signs of consciousness and no useful movement of his limbs. In an experiment, researchers implanted electrodes in his brain for a procedure called deep brain stimulation, which is routinely done for Parkinson’s disease and some other illnesses.
They turned the electrodes on and off over six months to test their effect, and reported the results in today’s issue of the journal Nature. The man, who was not identified at the family’s request, now has the electrodes activated throughout the day.
Specialists called the report exciting but cautioned that the approach must be tested on more people before its value can be known. The researchers have begun a study of additional patients.
Before the electrodes were implanted, the man was in what doctors call a “minimally conscious state.” That means he showed only occasional awareness of himself and the environment. In a coma or vegetative state, by contrast, patients show no outward signs of awareness.
There are no firm statistics on how many Americans are in a minimally conscious state, but one estimate suggests 112,000 to 280,000. Doctors may try medications to improve their condition, but no drugs have been firmly established as helpful.
The man described in the Nature study speaks in a breathy but audible voice, said Dr. Joseph Giacino, a co-author. He does not initiate conversations but can reply to others, typically with one to three words, said Dr. Giacino, of the JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in Edison, N.J.
Several weeks ago he recited the first half of the Pledge of Allegiance without assistance, Dr. Giacino said.
The man also recovered some movement. He can demonstrate such motions as brushing his teeth, said study co-author Dr. Nicholas Schiff of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. He can’t actually carry out that task because the tendons in his arms contracted after years of immobility.
“He is still totally dependent and severely disabled,” Dr. Schiff said.
But the treatment has helped him, the man’s mother said. “Now, my son can eat, express himself and let us know if he is in pain. He enjoys a quality of life we never thought possible,” she said.
Dr. James Bernat, a professor of neurology at Darmouth Medical School who didn’t participate in the new work, called the Nature report exciting and important.
Further study is needed to shed light on how many patients would respond and how to identify the minimally conscious patients with the best chance of being helped, he said.