Doctors use ultrasound to jump-start coma patient's brain

Sonic stimulation could speed up coma recovery.

Sebastian Kaulitzki via Getty Images

We're getting better at predicting when a patient might come out of a coma, but helping them recover is another matter. Even after a patient wakes up, the effects of being in a persistent unconscious state can result in severe brain injury. Recovery can take ages, but doctors at UCLA are testing a new treatment that could speed things up dramatically: using low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation to "jump-start" a patient's brain.

The research is still early, but it seems to be working for at least one 25-year-old patient, who showed "remarkable" improvement after the treatment. Before doctors used sonic stimulation to rouse the neurons in the patient's thalamus -- a structure in the brain that relays sensor signals and helps regulate alertness -- he showed little concious response and had trouble understanding speech. Within days of treatment, however, the patient was fully awake, responsive to conversation and actively communicating with nods and gestures.

"The changes were remarkable," says Martin Monti, UCLA associate professor of psychology and neurosurgery. "It's almost as if we were jump-starting the neurons back into function." If the treatment works in future trials, it could lead to a low-cost device to help patients recover from the effects of being in a coma.