WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- When patients fall into comas the effects on them, and their loved ones can be fatal or at best catastrophic, but a new breakthrough treatment has managed to wake up long term comatose patients
Sometimes when people experience a severe brain injury, or trauma, they end up in a coma, and while some comatose patients sometimes begin showing signs of intermittent consciousness they’re generally never able to communicate, and this state, known as “Minimal Consciousness” can leave families and friends feeling helpless and heartbroken.
Now though, hot on the heels of a breakthrough where researchers found a new way to restart hearts using just light, researchers in the US have discovered that these minimally conscious patients have been responding remarkably well to a five day course of treatment that involves 20 minutes a day of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) therapy, and in most cases they found that the patients involved, many of whom had been in comas for at least three months, were able to respond to commands, recognise objects, and, in a few cases, even communicate.
The treatment works by stimulating the neurons in the patient’s brain using low levels of electricity, and in the latest study, which was published in the journal Brain Injury, the treatment was applied to the patient’s prefrontal cortex – the part of their brains involved in high level cognitive functions and consciousness, and which is connected to other important areas in the brain.
Waves of electrical activity moving outward from the prefrontal cortex into other areas of the brain is the “signature” of consciousness, and this study’s success in stimulating some of these outgoing electrical impulses and patterns suggests that one day researchers might be able to help comatose patients wake up permanently, not just temporarily as they did in the study.
Approximately 315,000 Americans suffer from consciousness disorders and of those around 280,000 are minimally conscious, and while most of these disorders are caused by head traumas they can also be caused by overdoses, poisoning, suffocation, strokes, and even severe infections such as Meningitis or Encephalitis. And anytime a patient survives more than four weeks in a comatose state they inevitably end up entering a vegetative state with relatively few managing to ever regain full consciousness.
While the new study is encouraging it’s obviously still incomplete, and, while longer periods of stimulation in this latest research led to more significantly improved consciousness, it wasn’t clear if the patients could sustain their improvements, and if they couldn’t then it might be the case that further ongoing treatments might be necessary.
Either way though the treatment is cheap to reproduce and easy to use, so it’s possible that we might start seeing long term trials taking place soon, and if it is successful, and if it does help pull loved ones out of comas, then the benefit to the patients, and the families afflicted by this condition will be life changing.
Matthew Griffin Global Futurist, Tech Evangelist, X Prize Mentor ● Int'l Keynote Speaker ● Disruption, Futures and Innovation expert
Matthew Griffin, Futurist and Founder of the 311 Institute, a global futures think tank, is described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers.” Recognised in 2013, 2015 and 2016 as one of Europe’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew mentors several XPrize teams, and is an award winning author, entrepreneur and international speaker who is regularly featured on the BBC, Discovery, Kurzweil, Newsweek, TechCrunch and VentureBeat. Working hand in hand with accelerators, investors, governments, multi-nationals and regulators around the world Matthew shines a light on the future and helps them transform their industries, organisations, products and services by demonstrating how the combination of democratised, and increasingly powerful emerging technologies, are helping fuel cultural, industrial and societal change that is transforming old industries and creating new ones. Matthew’s clients include Accenture, Bain & Co, Bank of America, Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, Dell EMC, Deloitte, Deutsche Bank, E&Y, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, Huawei, JP Morgan Chase, KPMG, McKinsey & Co, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Schroeder’s, Sequoia Capital, UBS, the UK’s HM Treasury, the USAF and many others.