"WAKING UP THE BRAIN-DEAD
Challenge: Only 3 to 7 percent of patients in vegetative or minimally conscious states recover.
Radical Cure: Jolt the brain back to life.
Status: Active in one specialty clinic
Steven Domalewski had just released the ball when the batter smacked it right back at him, hitting his chest so hard that his heart stopped. A doctor put the then 12-year-old pitcher on life support and said that he would never wake up from the vegetative state. Then neuroscientist Philip De Fina heard of the case and treated Domalewski with his one-of-a-kind therapy. The boy woke up six weeks later. Domalewski’s first doctor called the recovery a fluke. “We’re proud of our record of flukes,” De Fina says. He and his colleagues have a lot of them: They wake up 84 percent of their patients from a minimally conscious or vegetative state. The nationwide rate is less than 7 percent.
Waking Up the Brain: John MacNeill
When a patient like Domalewski comes under the care of De Fina and Jonathan Fellus at the Kessler Institute in New Jersey, he doesn’t get the standard “life-sustaining” drug treatments. Instead, patients get a cocktail of therapies to jump-start their brain. First the doctors prescribe stimulants that boost mood-enhancing dopamine, as well as brain-arousing drugs normally used to treat depression, anxiety and Parkinson’s disease. Then it’s Narcan, a drug used to treat heroin overdoses that prevents natural endorphins from slowing a return to consciousness.
After two weeks, the doctors attach electrodes to each wrist that send pulses to the brain. The shocks draw blood to the brain, increasing levels of oxygen and glucose—brain food critical for everyday function—by 20 percent. In week five, patients receive vitamins, amino acids, herbs and minerals that decrease cell stress and promote normal synaptic transmission. This protocol has woken 43 patients from vegetative or minimally conscious states, with no major negative side effects.
With 320,000 vets returning from war with brain injuries, the U.S. Department of Defense has taken a new interest in caring for these patients and has awarded De Fina’s organization, the International Brain Research Foundation, $6.4 million to find what makes the treatment so effective. But patients are still the priority, Fellus says. “We want to get results first; then we’ll worry about how
How It Works
Electrodes send electrical signals along the median nerve in each wrist, up the spinal cord and to the thalamus, the main relay station in the brain. The electrical activity excites the brain and increases oxygen- and glucose-rich blood flow to the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that controls cognitive function, personality and emotion. Scientists think this helps stimulate new axon growth and rebuilds connections between damaged areas of the cerebral cortex.”