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Wake-Up Call

By Alice Short '77

Published Apr 1, 2017 8:00 AM

UCLA scientists successfully jump-started a coma patient’s brain.


Illustration by Jonathon Rosen.

The patient had suffered a traumatic brain injury and been in a coma for several days. Although he showed signs of waking up, he was, doctors said, in a “minimally conscious state.”

He was 25 years old, with perhaps years of uncertainty ahead.

That’s when a team of scientists, including Martin Monti, UCLA associate professor of psychology and neurosurgery, tried “jump-starting” his recovery with low-intensity ultrasound energy. They placed a saucer-sized device near his head and aimed the ultrasound waves at the thalamus, which regulates consciousness, for 30 seconds at a time, for about five minutes.

After 24 hours, Monti says, the patient “started trying to verbalize. ... Three days later, he clearly understood language. ... Five days after the intervention, he was starting to walk again.”

Until recently, the only way scientists could try to stimulate the thalamus was by implanting electrodes into the brain, an invasive procedure loaded with risk. The announcement of the “jump-start” was a shot heard ’round the world.

The new technique, called low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation, was pioneered by Alexander Bystritsky, UCLA professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and a co-author of the case report. Monti says that a somewhat similar technique had been used before on healthy volunteers on a different part of the brain, but the UCLA case was the first time doctors had used this exact procedure on a patient with a severe brain injury.

“We saw [the patient] in September, and he was walking, talking, laughing and joking,” Monti says, though he adds, “I’m sure if you spent time with him, you would notice he had memory troubles.”

Monti and his colleagues have used the technique on a second patient, who showed improvement “but not as much” as the first patient. “In the next six or 12 months, if we are lucky,” he says, “we could get four or five more patients” who will undergo the same procedure.

“But we have to be very careful. We have to see more patients before we get truly excited.”