A team of neuroscientists reported that they had restored some movement and speech to a severely brain-damaged man by stimulating his brain with pulses of electric current. The 38-year-old man, who had been barely conscious for six years, gradually regained the use of his left arm and began to utter coherent words for the first time since his injury in an assault, the doctors said.
Before surgery to implant two wire electrodes deep in his brain, he could respond to questions and commands occasionally, by moving his thumb or nodding, but was otherwise virtually mute and unable to move.
Experts said the case could revive interest in electrical stimulation for the thousands subsisting in states of partial consciousness.
Dr. James L. Bernat, a professor of neurology at Dartmouth Medical School,said, “I think this case suggests that this surgery probably will be one of the choices of treatment we can give to certain patients who have some chance of recovery.”
Dr Bernat said he did not expect the treatment to help brain-damaged patients who had been totally unresponsive for more than a year. But for those who become occasionally or partly responsive after an injury, he said, “I think we should be aggressive and do whatever it takes” to induce improvement.
The doctors threaded two wires through the man’s skull and into a subcortical area called the thalamus, which acts as a switching center for circuits that support arousal, attention and emotion, among other functions. The wires were connected to a pacemakerlike unit, implanted under the man’s collarbone.
Soon after the operation, and after the device was turned on to adjust the stimulation dose, the patient began to speak words, identifying pictures in a battery of tests, and became gradually more attentive.
“Even though this is a first step, it is of utmost importance, because it shows that this therapeutic approach is worth studying,” said Dr. Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liège in Belgium.
“I can only hope that further cases will confirm this result, because if that would fail, we would see this whole idea go back into the fridge for a long time.”