“Can he hear me?” family members are desperate to know when a loved one with a traumatic brain injury is in a coma.


A new Northwestern Medicine and Hines VA Hospital study shows the voices of loved ones telling the patient familiar stories stored in his long-term memory can help awaken the unconscious brain and speed recovery from the coma.


Coma patients who heard familiar stories repeated by family members four times a day for six weeks, via recordings played over headphones, recovered consciousness significantly faster and had an improved recovery compared to patients who did not hear the stories, reports the study.


The paper was published January 22 in the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.


“We believe hearing those stories in parents’ and siblings’ voices exercises the circuits in the brain responsible for long-term memories,” said lead author Theresa Pape. “That stimulation helped trigger the first glimmer of awareness.”


As a result, the coma patients can wake more easily, become more aware of their environment and start responding to conversations and directions.


“It’s like coming out of anesthesia,” Pape said. “It’s the first step in recovering full consciousness.”


Pape is a neuroscientist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a neuroscientist at Hines VA.


“After the study treatment, I could tap them on the shoulder, and they would look at me,” Pape said. “Before the treatment they wouldn’t do that.”


Being more aware of their environment means the patients can actively participate in physical, speech and occupational therapy, all essential for their rehabilitation.


A coma is an unconscious condition in which the patient can’t open his eyes. Patients usually progress from a coma to either a minimally conscious or vegetative state, and these states can last a few weeks, months or years. Every five seconds, someone in the U.S. has a traumatic brain injury. Troops deployed to wars zones are at an even greater risk for having a severe enough brain injury to cause a coma.


“It’s an incredibly common and devastating injury,” Pape said.


The familiar voices treatment also benefits families.


“Families feel helpless and out of control when a loved one is in a coma,” Pape said. “It’s a terrible feeling for them. This gives them a sense of control over the patient’s recovery and the chance to be part of the treatment.”


Such was the case for Corinth Catanus, whose husband, Godfrey, a former California youth minister, was a participant in the study after being in a coma for three months. “The stories I told him helped Godfrey recover from his coma, and they helped me feel I could do something for him,” she said. “That gave me hope.”

To read the rest of the story, including more details about Godfrey Catanus' recovery from a coma, visit the Northwestern News Center.

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