Researchers: Man's Brain 'Rewired Itself' To Make Him Talk
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
July 6, 2006
NEW YORK, NEW YORK--Researchers using new brain imaging technology say that Terry Wallis' brain spent nearly two decades 'rewiring itself' to bring him out of a "minimally conscious state" (MCS) and speak.
In early June 2003, the then-39-year-old Wallis began talking to his parents at a Little Rock nursing home. He had last spoken in 1984 before his brain was injured from an automobile accident. During the time in between, doctors said he went into the MCS from a vegetative state and a coma.
Since his "extraordinary" recovery, doctors have been studying Wallis' brain to determine how he suddenly got back his ability to speak. Their research, published last Saturday in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, is considered the first of its kind.
"In essence, Terry's brain may have been seeking out new pathways to re-establish functional connections to areas involved in speech and motor control -- to compensate for those lost due to damage," said Nicholas Schiff, the study's senior author.
Some experts and mainstream media have been quick to point out that Terry Wallis was not in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) like Terri Schiavo, who died from dehydration last year after her feeding tube was removed under a court order. Schiavo's husband requested to have the feeding tube removed, claiming that her brain was no longer functioning, and that his wife would not have wanted to be on life support. Schiavo's parents opposed the removal saying their daughter was aware of her surroundings and tried to interact with them. More than a dozen disability groups joined her parents saying that she had the right to live and to receive therapies regardless of the PVS diagnosis.
The new research seemed to have an impact on some of the study's authors and other doctors.
"There may indeed be patients who are somewhat conscious who are being misdiagnosed as being in a vegetative state, and thus being shipped off to nursing homes without being given the opportunity, resources, [and] therapy to get better," co-author Joseph Giacino told ABC News.
"It's not that doctors are negligent. It's just that it is very difficult to measure consciousness. For example, a patient who doesn't speak, respond to voices, or move their head when spoken to might still have some level of awareness. And, if they do, it is more likely that they will improve in the future."
An accompanying commentary in the Journal read, "This case shows that old dogmas need to be oppugned [called into question], as recovery with meaningful reduction in disability continued in this case for nearly 2 decades after extremely severe traumatic brain injury."
Dr. James Bernat, a neurologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, told the Associated Press: "Most neurologists would have been willing to bet money that whatever the cause of it, if it hadn't changed in 19 years, wasn't going to change now. So it's really extraordinary."
Wallis' parents had said that there were times after their son's accident when they thought it would have been best if he had not survived.
His father, Jerry Wallis, said of his son this week: "He now seems almost exactly like his old self. And he very often tells us how glad he is to be alive."
"Possible axonal regrowth in late recovery from the minimally conscious state" (Journal of Clinical Investigation)
"Commentary: Tracking the recovery of consciousness from coma" (Journal of Clinical Investigation)
"Docs: Comatose Man's Brain Rewired Itself" (Associated Press via The Ledger)
"After 19 Years 'Asleep,' Man's Brain Appears to Heal Itself" (ABC News)
"What's the Difference Between Terri Schiavo and Terry Wallis?" (LifeNews.com)
"Terri Schiavo's Right To Live" (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)