Before neuroscientists aimed a unique ultrasound device at his head, the 25-year-old man recovering from traumatic brain injury barely responded. His movements were small and limited.
Three days later he could nod and shake his head, and even gave the doctor a fist-bump, reports Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence.
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For the first time, scientists used a technique called "low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation" on an actual patient who recently emerged from a coma. The team at UCLA, led by associate professor of psychology and neurosurgery Martin Monti, treated the patient by aiming a coffee saucer-sized device at his brain and activating it in short bursts for a 10-minute period, according to a university press release.
The device, made by California company BrainSonix, works by creating a sphere of acoustic energy that can be aimed to stimulate specific brain tissue. Coma patients tend to have problems with the thalamus, an area of the brain that relays sensory impulses and is crucial for perception. Normally, stimulating it can only be achieved with a surgical procedure where electrodes are implanted into that part of the brain.
"Our approach directly targets the thalamus, but is noninvasive," Monti told UCLA. Instead, the device excited neurons in the thalamus with sonic stimulation. "It's almost as if we were jump-starting the neurons back into function," he added. The team recently published their study results in the journal Brain Stimulation (abstract).
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Monti was quick to point out that their study was limited to one guy already recovering from being a coma, and added that they could have just been lucky. Next, the group plans to test the technique on more patients this fall at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
If this acoustic device eventually proves to significantly help brain injury patients return to us, the team envisions it becoming a portable, low-cost treatment. One day the device could even end up inside a special medical-use helmet. Now, that would be worth a few fist-bumps.
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