Medical Minute 7-6: Magnets Wake Up Coma Patients

By: Vanessa Welch Email
By: Vanessa Welch Email

Life for Josh Villa changed in an instant.

After a car accident six years ago, the once active father of three was left in a coma-like state. His mother provides him with constant care.

"Everybody says, 'How can you do it?' You just do what you need to do when is put before you."

A year after the accident, Laurie enrolled her son into a first-of-its-kind study using a magnetic therapy known as transcranial magnetic stimulation.

It's the brain child of Doctor Theresa Pape. This coil creates a magnetic field, stimulating 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 Dr. Theresa Pape, Clinical Neuroscientist U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs.

The work is especially important for injured troops. More than 300-thousand have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with a brain injury. 25-hundred are severe like Josh's. While about two-thirds of those will regain full consciousness, there are no treatments to get them beyond that. Results of the study are promising. After 15 sessions, Josh went from not responding at all.

To holding his head up and occasionally following commands. Doctor Pape says Josh even spoke a few words: "mom", "help me" and "pain."

"Our mouths kind of hung open, and we thought, 'Whoa,' and we said, 'Let's see if we can repeat this.'"

Further magnetic stimulation therapy didn't help Josh, but Doctor Pape's second patient, whose name has not been released, showed even better results.

"He was fully conscious. 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, but 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.

For more information on other series produced by Ivanhoe Broadcast News contact John Cherry at (407) 691-1500,

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