Man Comatose for 20 Years Regains Speech, Movement as Brain Rewires

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 4, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Man Comatose for 20 Years Regains Speech, Movement as Brain Rewires Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
July 4, 2006

Mountain View, AR ( — A man who was in a coma for 20 years has awaken from it and regained his speech and movement capabilities as his brain has rewired itself by growing new connections from those that were severed in an automobile accident. Terry Wallis is one of a few people to make such a dramatic recovery after a prolonged coma.

Wallis speaks in a slurred but coherent voice, telling visitors "Glad to be met" and telling them of his brother’s plans to light fireworks today at his house nearby.

For his family, each word is a miracle. Wallis began recovering from the coma in June 2003, as national controversy about an incapacitated woman, Terri Schiavo, began to develop.

Wallis’ first word was "Mom" and he has been speaking more and improving his speech ever since. He can now count to 25 uninterrupted.

Researchers published a paper this week in the Journal of Clinical Investigation about Wallis’ story and say that his case provides strong evidence that the brain heals itself by forming new neural connections. The article includes images of Mr. Wallis’ brain, the first ones to be taken from a recovering comatose patient.

"We read about these widely publicized cases of miraculous recovery every few years, but none of them, not one, has ever been followed up scientifically until now," said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan and the senior author of the new study.

"In essence, Terry’s brain may have been seeking out new pathways to reestablish functional connections to areas involved in speech and motor control to compensate for those lost due to damage," he explained.

The paper appears to suggest that Wallis did not make a sudden recovery three years ago, but his awakening from the coma was the result of years of nerves regrowing and healing themselves.

Despite the recovery, Wallis has complete amnesia about the 20 years he missed, when he was barely conscious and communicated only through nods and grunts, according to an AP report.

"He still thinks Ronald Reagan is president," his father, Jerry, said in a statement. Jerry indicated Wallis thought he was still 20 years old until recently.

Jerry said Wallis often makes jokes like he did before the accident and frequently indicated he is happy to be alive — a sign that euthanizing him like Terri Schiavo was killed would have denied Wallis a second chance at life.

"That was something he wasn’t able to do early in his recovery," Jerry Wallis said. "He now seems almost exactly like his old self. And he very often tells us how glad he is to be alive."

Schiff said researchers compared brain scans of Wallis to that of 18 healthy people and another minimally conscious person who had been in that state for six years.

In Wallis’ brain, "what we first see is how overwhelmingly severe this injury was, Schiff told AP, saying he had many abnormalities compared to healthy people.

A second set of images taken 18 months later showed new neural connections forming and growing and in areas of the brain that regulate movement and speech.

Related web sites:
Journal of Clinical Investigation –