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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Brain-damaged patient shows remarkable recovery

By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff

The patient went from near-total catatonia to being able to eat, cry, laugh and say, “I love you, Mommy,” his mother says.

A brain-damaged man who had been barely conscious for six years underwent a striking recovery after doctors implanted a pacemaker-like device in an area of his brain connected to arousal, the journal Nature reports today.

The 38-year-old is the first brain-injured patient to be implanted with a “Deep Brain Stimulator,” a device that uses tiny electrodes to send electrical signals into precisely targeted areas of the brain.

Deep Brain Stimulation has been used for years in tens of thousands of patients with Parkinson’s Disease, but it is now being tried in a variety of brain diseases, from psychiatric illnesses to movement disorders.

The man, whom researchers are keeping anonymous at the family’s request, was the first in a planned 12-patient study using the stimulators on an area of the brain called the thalamus, which is believed to be a kind of gateway to the cortex, the seat of conscious thought.

The multi-site study is led by researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

Researchers caution that the single case study, though exciting, should not evoke too much hope for the relatives of the tens of thousands of comatose and semi-comatose patients in the United States.

The patient, whose skull had been crushed in a brutal mugging, was not in a coma or vegetative state; he was “minimally conscious,” meaning he did sometimes respond a bit to the world around him. And his brain damage had left intact certain key areas of his brain, which is often not the case.

Still, researchers say, the case does suggest that even long-term minimally conscious patients may be able to make progress if the right treatment can be found.

And the patient’s mother, who spoke tearfully at a press conference today, said she thought her son’s case sent the message to other patients’ relatives: “Don’t give up hope.”

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 01:01 PM
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