Talking to loved ones in coma helps recovery

24 January 2015

Researchers investigating whether recovery from coma could be improved by stimulating and exercising patients' brains while they were unconscious have found that voices of family members and loved ones helped recovery, reported.

Coma patientsA coma is defined as an unconscious condition in which patients are not able to open their eyes. When patients begin to recover from a coma, they progress first to a minimally conscious or "vegetative state," though these states could last anywhere from a few weeks to several years.

Lead author Theresa Pape was inspired to conduct the new study, which has been published in  Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.

Pape was working as a speech therapist for coma patients with traumatic brain injuries and observed that patients appeared to respond better to family members than to strangers.

From this, Pape started wondering if patients' ability to recover might be speeded up if therapists could stimulate and exercise people's brains while they were unconscious.

In the randomised, placebo-controlled study, 15 patients with traumatic closed head injuries who were in a minimally conscious state were enrolled to Familiar Auditory Sensory Training (FAST).

The 12 men and three women with an average age of 35 had been in a vegetative state for an average of 70 days before they were put on FAST treatment.

The patients heard recordings of loved ones reminiscing about shared events or saying the coma victim's name four times a day for six weeks, reported.

MRI scans showed increased activity, when clips were played and all patients recovered faster than normal.

Pape, who led the team from Northwestern University in the US, told The Telegraph, "We believe hearing those stories in parents' and siblings' voices exercises the circuits in the brain responsible for long-term memories. That stimulation helped trigger the first glimmer of awareness. We saw changes in the blood oxygen level in their brain regions associated with long-term memory and understanding language. That means they were using those regions of their brains."

According to Corinth Catanus, whose husband Godfrey was in a coma for three months, telling stories made a 'huge difference' in his recovery.

The patients, 12 men and three women who had been victims of assaults, bomb traumas or road accidents had faster recovery.

She told the newspaper, the stories she told her husband helped him recover from his coma, and they helped her feel good that she could do something for him. She said that gave her hope.

"The voices treatment made a huge difference in his recovery. I know it helped bring him back to us."

(Read more: Family voices and stories speed coma recovery)

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