Mom's voice can spur recovery from coma

Striking a cord

Mom's voice can spur recovery from coma

Familiar voices help repair the brain’s neural networks. getty images

Recordings from Ryan’s mother, father or sister were played through headphones for him four times a day.

Ryan’s mother Karen Schroeder’s voice, recorded on a CD, reminded him of his 4-H project when he was 10 and decided to raise pigs.

She said: “You bid on three beautiful squealing black and white piglets at the auction. We took them home in the trunk of our Lincoln Town Car, because we didn’t have a truck.” All the recordings were part of a new clinical trial investigating whether repeated stimulation with familiar voices can help repair a coma victim’s injured brain networks and spur his recovery. Ryan regained consciousness after nearly one month in the trial and has made steady progress during the past year. Researchers, however, won’t know for certain if the therapy helped his recovery until the study is over.

The research may be useful to young people like Ryan as well as soldiers injured in combat, who have a high rate of traumatic brain injuries from roadside bombs.

Theresa Pape, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University hopes the study will provide an answer to the question that families are desperate to know when a loved one is in a coma: “Can he hear me?”  She is especially eager to know if these family voices can facilitate repair of the brain to improve the subject’s ability understand information.

Pape’s hypothesis is that repeated exposure to familiar voices could help repair the brain’s neural networks, some of which become sheared in traumatic brain injury.

In a previous small pilot study, Pape observed that subjects in a vegetative state responded more to the voices of people who are familiar to them compared with non-familiar voices. When those subjects heard voices of their family members, an MRI scan showed that parts of their brain were activated, appearing as bright yellow and red blobs of light scattered in an unorganised pattern. With unfamiliar voices, there was little activation.

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