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Nerve Growth Observed After Recovery from 19-Year Coma

Patient spontaneously regained consciousness after being comatose for nearly two decades

MONDAY, July 3 (HealthDay News) -- A patient who spontaneously recovered from being in a coma for 19 years had evidence of new nerve growth in the undamaged brain areas that correlated with improved speech and motor function, according to a report in the July issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Henning U. Voss, Ph.D., of Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, and colleagues used diffusion tensor imaging to study two patients who were or had been in a minimally conscious state after traumatic brain injury, and 20 healthy individuals. One of the comatose individuals, a 39-year-old male, spontaneously recovered after 19 years and received two scans 18 months apart, while the other comatose individual, a 24-year-old male, had not recovered after six years.

The researchers found that in the patient who recovered from coma, there was evidence of new myelinated nerve fibers in the undamaged white matter encompassing the posterior midline cortices. Motor function also significantly improved and there was evidence of brain metabolic activity in this brain area as observed by positron emission tomography. His speech also improved, according to the study.

"This case shows that old dogmas need to be oppugned, as recovery with meaningful reduction in disability continued in this case for nearly two decades after extremely severe traumatic brain injury," Steven Laureys, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues from the University of Liege in Belgium, write in an accompanying editorial. They add that the study "will increase our understanding of severely brain-damaged patients and their 'miracle' recovery of consciousness."

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