UCLA scientists have announced a breakthrough that might be able to help coma patients restore cognitive ability much faster than in the past. In a study recently published in the journal Brain Stimulation, scientists claim that a new method of using ultrasound to target coma patient’s brains can restore mental functions and even consciousness. The test subject in this study was minimally conscious at the beginning of the trial, and three days later was fully conscious, able to answer “yes or no” questions using his head and even fist-bump doctors.
According to a press release issued by the university, The technique used to reawaken the man’s brain is called low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation. In this procedure, a small device is placed atop a patient’s head, which then projects high-frequency sound waves directly into different areas of the brain. In this study the ultrasound energy was aimed directly at the thalamus, the region of the brain directly related with transmitting sensory and motor signals to the cerebral cortex as well as regulating consciousness; most coma therapies, surgical or not, target the thalamus for this reason.
Martin Monti, the study’s lead author and UCLA professor of psychology and neurosurgery, claims the man’s neural networks were essentially brought back to life through the minimally invasive ultrasound procedure:
It’s almost as if we were jump-starting the neurons back into function. Until now, the only way to achieve this was a risky surgical procedure known as deep brain stimulation, in which electrodes are implanted directly inside the thalamus. Our approach directly targets the thalamus but is noninvasive.
While this case showed promising results, it’s not clear how effective it might be in other cases. Naturally, as with any scientific breakthrough, much more testing is needed to determine if these results can be replicated on other test subjects. According to lead researcher Monti, this success story might simply be a fluke:
It is possible that we were just very lucky and happened to have stimulated the patient just as he was spontaneously recovering.
It’s been a big year for ultrasound, which has become one of the hottest mediums for scientific research. In May, neuroscientists found a way to stimulate or control neural networks using ultrasound, and more recently, a team of acoustic researchers found a way to levitate objects using sound waves.