Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles have developed a new ultrasound machine that can activate the brain of coma patients to fasten their development.
This non-invasive technique using ultrasound excites the neurons of the thalamus in the brain using sonic stimulations. The thalamus is a very small oval-structured part of the brain that is responsible for receiving and processing information. Patients in a vegetative state, usually those suffering and recovering from coma, have to undergo brain stimulation which is currently done by implanting electrodes surgically inside the thalamus.
According to Martin Monti, Professor of Psychology and Neurosurgery at UCLA and lead author of the study, “It’s almost as if we were jump-starting the neurons back into function.” He added, “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.”
In their recent clinical trial on a 25-year-old coma patient, the new ultrasound technique greatly improved his condition. The patient was reported to have only limited movements upon waking up, but three days of treatment have said that he regained complete consciousness. The patient can no fully communicate in language comprehension as compared to his previous state of only nodding (yes) and shaking (no) his head when asked questions.
The researchers used a saucer-shaped device attached to the patient’s head which creates acoustic energy, which is much less than the conventional Doppler ultrasound used to treat the tissues of the brain.
In just 10 minutes, the device was activated around 10 times for 30 seconds each. The primary target of the stimulation is the thalamus since it is mainly responsible for processing information in the brain.
“It is possible that we were just very lucky and happened to have stimulated the patient just as he was spontaneously recovering,” said Monti. “The changes were remarkable.”
An official report said that the researchers are now scheduled to use the technique on several other coma patients this fall at UCLA Medical Center.
The study was published in the journal Brain Stimulation.