Monday, November 25, 2013

Bringing Back the Unconscious: The Latest Science on Awakenings


Hundreds of thousands of patients in the U.S. languish in unconsciousness, cut off from the world by severe brain injuries. But the latest research hints that some of them may still retain reserves of conscious awareness and that there may be ways to reach them — with sleeping pills, antiviral medications, or electric stimulation — and help them to reawaken.

George Melendez was all but dead in January of 1998, when he was pulled from the wreckage of a car that had landed in a small pond on a golf course near Houston, TX. Medics revived him but the combined brain trauma of the accident and near drowning left the then 23-year-old college student in what doctors call a minimally conscious state—awake and occasionally aware of his surroundings but incapable of producing any reliable responses—verbal or otherwise. His mother and stepfather cared for him at home, feeding him by tube, handling his bathing and toileting with the help of a part-time aide. The doctors told them not to expect much, but the parents never lost hope.

It’s these patients, such as Melendez, that scientists are hoping to reach. In 2002, a doctor prescribed the common sleep drug zolpidem (Ambien) to ease his thrashing and moaning at night. That’s when something extraordinary occurred: Melendez woke up.

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