July 3, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Rip Van Winkle Revives

A man in a coma 19 years has regained some brain function, surprising scientists.  Terry Wallis is relearning how to count and speak, and thinks Ronald Reagan is still president.  The story of his remarkable recovery has been reported widely in the news (see Fox News) and was featured on both News@Nature and Science Now.  What was surprising was that “his brain slowly regrew the nerve connections that were devastated as a result of his accident,” said Michael Hopkin for News@Nature, forcing neurologists to reconsider the dogma that hopes for recovery decrease over time.
    Although scientists caution against raising hopes for other patients, the case of Terry Wallis shows that the idea that there are hopeless cases may need to be reconsidered.  Most of the reports claimed that patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), such as that alleged in the highly-publicized case of Terry Schiavo, are in a different category than that of Wallis.  News@Nature ended, however, with a surprise finding even for PVS patients:

Neurologists are reluctant to declare that PVS, the condition at the centre of the controversial debate over US sufferer Terri Schiavo, can ever be truly permanent.  Earlier this year, researchers made the bizarre discovery that some PVS patients could be roused with a simple sleeping pill (see ‘Sleeping pills offer wake-up call to vegetative patients’).

A report on World Net Daily says that Terry Wallis is able to tell jokes and, according to his father, “seems almost exactly like his old self.”

The brain’s capacity to repair itself may be more remarkable than realized.  The ScienceNow article stated, “the brain regions that survived Wallis’s accident forged new connections, perhaps in an attempt to re-establish contact with regions that were damaged.”  It’s remarkable how much of his memory remained intact during nearly two decades out of touch with reality.  This should give medical care professionals and family members pause when tempted to think a comatose patient is beyond hope.  It also raises questions why a brain would try to repair itself, if reproductive success is the be-all and end-all of natural selection.

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Categories: Health, Human Body

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