Every year, 1.7 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury, nearly one in five as the result of a war injury.
While medicine can help keep many of the most severe cases alive after a coma, giving them back function is something science has been unable to do.
However, now a promising study that utilizes electromagnetic stimulation could help those cases wake up.
Life for Josh Villa changed in an instant as the result of a car accident six years ago. The once active father of three was left in a coma-like state with his mother providing him with constant care.
“Everybody says, ‘How can you do it?’,” said Laurie McAndrews. “You just do what you need to do when is put before you.”
The year after the accident, McAndrews enrolled her son into a first-of-its-kind study that used magnetic therapy known as transcranial magnetic stimulation.
The therapy, brain child of doctor Theresa Pape, uses a coil creates a magnetic field that stimulates the brain.
“If we can get these neurons up here to activate and eventually descend down here to the brain stem and then ascend back up to the cortex, we should be able to facilitate the repair of the brain,” said Pape, clinical neuroscientist at the United States Department of Veteran Affairs.
With more than 300,000 sustaining a brain injury in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2,500 severe like Villa’s, the work is especially important for injured troops.
Although two-thirds of those sustaining brain injuries regain full consciousness, there are no treatments available to get them beyond that. Results of the study are promising and after 15 sessions, Villa went from not responding at all to holding his head up and occasionally following commands.
Pape has observed Villa even speaking a few words like “Mom”, “Help me” and “Pain.”
“Our mouths kind of hung open,” said Pape. “We thought, ‘Whoa,’ and we said, ‘Let’s see if we can repeat this.’”
Further magnetic stimulation therapy did not help Villa, but Pape treated a second patient that showed even better results.
“He was fully conscious,” said Pape. “He started talking to us, basically, and his sister and his brother and answering commands consistently, answering yes/no questions and initiating conversation.”
“I guess I hoped for that,” said McAndrews. “It didn’t happen, but a new study is always hope.”
About four more people will be studied over the next three years. The next patient is set to be a veteran.
Once the safety trial is over, Pape and her team will run a randomized clinical trial using both newly-injured patients and those living with older severe traumatic brain injuries.
Villa, who is in a minimally-conscious state, could be a candidate for that trial.
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