Head injuries and new research
On August 1, 2007, the journal Nature published a new report documenting the case of a 38 year-old man who was awakened from a barely-conscious state through electronic brain stimulation. The man had suffered a depressed skull fracture and severe brain injury in an armed robbery and beating, and had not regained full consciousness in more than five years (the NYT reported more than five years, NPR reported 8 years). The man's recovery has not been complete, but he can now converse with his mother over simple issues; previously, he had remained in a virtual sleep-state.
The recovery was achieved by means of a deep brain stimulator implanted in the thalamus at a site that controls sleep and waking states. Researchers were quick to point out that this procedure was not helpful when attempted with Terri Schiavo and that the patient must have evidence of some brain function for it to work. This patient was minimally responsive over the years and testing showed that certain language and intellectual functions of his brain remained intact. The procedure was performed at the Cleveland Clinic. A neurologist at Cornell reported the results, along with the Clinic physicians. They note that the patient shows clear, objective improvement in function during the 12 hours per day when the implant is activated, and that he regresses in function when it is off. While he has thus far been unable to develop new memory, he is once again an individual--even if his functional capacity is incomplete.