It's a condition that's baffled doctors for decades with almost no effective treatments. Now doctors are trying new ways to wake these patients up.
Six years ago Josh Villa was a busy, active father-of-three. Then, tragedy struck. A roll-over car accident left him in a coma-like state. But josh has made big improvements since he enrolled in a clinical trial testing transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS.
After 15 sessions, Josh could blink to communicate. he could also hold his head up and has even spoken a few words. He couldn't do any of this before TMS.
Another therapy called deep brain stimulation is being studied on some patients. It uses electrical pulses to stimulate parts of the brain. Doctors tried it on a patient who could not speak, chew or swallow for six years. After the procedure, he can eat, drink and even talk.
"Now, he can say 6 or 7 word sentences, can tell his mother he loves her," Joseph Fins, M.D., a medical ethics professor at Weill cornell Medical College, said.
Other research has changed the way doctors think about coma patients. One study found even though some are diagnosed as vegetative, they are able to respond to yes or no questions by changing their brain activity just like normally-functioning people, suggesting patients may be able to hear and even feel what's going on around them.
Josh's mom is thankful for every improvement the clinical trial has brought.
"I'm very happy for what I've got," Laurie McAndrews, Josh's mom, said.
Doctors say both TMS and deep brain stimulation are designed for patients in a minimally-conscious state, not a vegetative state. But, patients are misdiagnosed as vegetative about 40% of the time. Meanwhile, there are serious risks associated with deep brain stimulation, which are amplified in brain-damaged patients.
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Andrew Klein, Media Associate
Weill Cornell Medical College