Comatose Woman’s Awakening Brings Call for More Brain Disability Study

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 12, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Comatose Woman’s Awakening Brings Call for More Brain Disability Study Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
March 12
, 2007

New York, NY ( — News that another comatose patient at least temporarily awakened from her slumber has prompted calls for more research into what some scientists call a minimally conscious state. Researchers say the term is a more accurate designation for some patients like Terri Schiavo than the oft-used persistent vegetative state.

According to news reports last week, a woman named Christa awoke from a supposedly PVS condition over six years and began eating and having conversations with her loved ones. Later, she slipped back into her original condition.

The case brings to mind that of Terri Schiavo, the severely disabled woman whose husband was allowed to legally euthanize her, and 42-year-old Terry Wallis of Arkansas.

Wallis had been in a minimally conscious state since a 1984 truck accident. In 2003, he unexpectedly began talking and moving after years of impairment.

Last July, researchers from Cornell published a paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation and said that here is evidence the brain heals itself by forming new neural connections.

Dr. Joseph Fins, of the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says a nationwide epidemiological study on just how and where severely brain-injured patients are being cared for could help add to that research.

"Right now, we don’t even know how many Americans with conditions such as the vegetative state or the minimally conscious state are being cared for in medical centers and nursing homes nationwide," he said.

"The Wallis case demonstrates that, even years after injury, the minimally conscious brain has the potential, in rare cases, for recovery. It also lays out the possibility that this process might even be accelerated and helped," Dr. Fins says.

And yet, today, more than 100,000 Americans are thought to be kept in long-term care facilities across the U.S. under what’s known as "custodial care," with little consistent follow-up.

Dr. Kathleen Foley, who chaired a recent Institutes of Medicine meeting on disorders of consciousness, agrees such a study would help.

"Getting those numbers in a countrywide survey is an essential first step for the kind of research that would help us in the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of these severely debilitating conditions," she explained.

"Without national data, we don’t know how many patients are in this situation. In fact, we don’t even know how frequent or likely recoveries like Mr. Wallis’ might be," Foley noted.

"Obviously, we need to do a better job of keeping track of all patients with disorders of consciousness, including periodically reassessing them for any changes in neurological function. That sort of database would greatly enhance research," she concluded.