Ultrasound Helped a Patient Recover Remarkably From a Coma

Ultrasound machines may find a new medical use: helping patients with severe brain injuries to recover. serdar415/Getty Images

As far as medical conditions go, being in a coma is one of the most dreaded. It's the uncertainty of it, for one: how long will it last, whether the coma can be resolved.

It's also that doctors have virtually no way of controlling what effects will linger even if the patient wakes. While you might think of a "vegetative state" as a coma, that's actually what can happen during coma recovery: The patient might be able to open their eyes, for instance, or make some communicative sounds. Minimally conscious patients might be able to communicate a bit more, or follow a few commands — but not reliably, and not often.

But one experimental technique reported in the journal Brain Stimulation has put forward a tantalizing hope for "waking up" patients after their comatose state. All you need is a couple of jumper cables and a battery.

OK, not really. While the researchers at UCLA reporting on its trial call it a "jump start" to the brain, they're not plugging you into anything. In fact, the tool used is an instrument extremely common in medicine: an ultrasound. Further, it's an ultrasound that uses low-intensity focused pulsation, even less than the Doppler ultrasound your doctor might rely on to check for blood clots or clogged arteries.

So far it's just been used once, on a 25 year-old minimally conscious patient recovering from a coma. By using the ultrasound to target the thalamus, it seemed to excite the patient's neurons enough to cause real improvement. After intervals over a course of 10 minutes, the patient started showing remarkable progress the day after and beyond: He regained full consciousness, language comprehension and could consistently nod and shake his head to questions.

Is it a miracle? Let's not be so sure yet. It's only been tried on the one patient, and more studies need to be done. More testing will occur in fall 2016 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.