The brains of two people who were in a minimally conscious state from severe brain injuries were recovered using an ultrasound technique. One had been unconscious for 14 months and the other for two and a half years, but after treatment they were both able to communicate timidly with their relatives again. This important advance was made by a team of neuroscientists from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
According to a release, two severely brain-injured patients who had entered a long-term state of minimally conscious achieved a surprising recovery after undergoing ultrasound stimulation. This important fact and the advances in the mentioned technique are described in an article published in the journal Brain Stimulation.
Specialists call a state of minimal consciousness a situation in which people periodically vary between sleep and wakefulness, but when they are awake they are only capable of showing subtle signals of consciousness, such as blinking at an order. It is a slight variation or advance of the coma, in which the two recovered persons were in this case.
It is worth remembering that this same team of scientists had already achieved in 2016 recover from a coma to a man using the same ultrasound stimulation techniques. Now, the achievement is more significant because the patients maintained a state of minimal consciousness in a chronic or long-term way, while the case of 2016 was specified in an acute patient, who had suffered a sudden episode.
Remarkable and rapid progress
In the latest investigation, the experts worked with three people, two of whom made significant progress. Perhaps most importantly, they demonstrated the ability to understand speech. In addition, they were able to express approval or rejection from an order, handle a pen, recognize photographs or grasp and manipulate objects, among other advances.
According to the researchers, the key fact is that patients managed to manifest these progress only after a few days of receiving ultrasound treatment, which marks the potential that this technique would have in these types of cases and perhaps also in other contexts.
The new approach is called low intensity focused ultrasound. It uses sonic stimulation to excite neurons in the thalamus, a region of the brain that is vital in cognitive processing. Specialists focus on the thalamus because evidence indicates that, after entering a coma, the functions of the thalamus are markedly impaired.
Acoustic energy device
To stimulate this area of the brain, the scientists used a specially designed device, designed to create a tiny sphere of acoustic energy. The small device is able to target different areas of the brain and excite brain tissue. The device is located to the side of the patient’s head, activating ten times in thirty-second periods. The sessions last ten minutes.
In this case, each patient underwent two sessions one week apart. Although specialists are satisfied with the results obtained, they have made it clear that the technique is still experimental. In the future, they plan additional studies to find out exactly how thalamic ultrasound changes brain function and allows significant advances in people with altered states of consciousness.
Ultrasonic thalamic stimulation in chronic disorders of consciousness. Joshua A. Cain, Norman M. Spivak, John P. Coetzee, Paul M. Vespa
Caroline Schnakers and Martin M. Monti. Brain Stimulation (2021).DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brs.2021.01.008
The scientists used a small device to direct the ultrasound to the thalamus in the brain. Credit: Martin Monti / UCLA.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.