Doctors long believed that patients who remained in a coma weeks or more after a brain injury would never regain consciousness. But recent research has shown that consciousness isn’t a binary, awake-or-not state; it’s a spectrum. While some brain injury patients are in a vegetative state, without any conscious awareness, others are in what’s called a minimally conscious state, still partially aware of—and at times even able to respond to—their surroundings. From the outside, it can be difficult to tell the two apart, though new methods, such as EEGs that pick up on subtle differences in brain waves, are starting to help clinicians gauge a patient’s level of consciousness.
From these hinterlands of consciousness comes another astounding—and mysterious—discovery: Ambien, the prescription sleep medication, and zolpidem, the drug’s generic form, can help some minimally conscious patients wake up. Jeneen Interlandi delves deep into this seemingly paradoxical treatment in the New York Times magazine:
What’s the News: A non-invasive test that measures brain waves could help doctors better diagnose whether a patient is truly in a vegetative state, according to a preliminary study published today in Science. What’s more, the results suggest that a particular pathway of communication in the brain is disrupted in vegetative patients but not patients with somewhat less severe brain damage—which could not only improve diagnosis, but help researchers better understand these tragic conditions.
Traumatic brain injury has become the signature war wound for soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan–and new research suggests that soldiers may not be adequately protected against the explosions that cause these injuries. By modeling how blast waves propagate through a soldier’s head, an MIT research group found that current combat helmets don’t offer much protection, because the blast waves from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) can enter the skull through the face.
“There’s a passageway through those soft tissues directly into the brain tissue, without having to go through bone or anything hard,” said Raul Radovitzky, an aeronautical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [LiveScience]
In the study, which was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers created their own computer model based on a real person’s brain scans; what they found actually contradicted findings from earlier, rougher models. A previous study, published in August, suggested that current helmet design actually increases brain injuries during an explosion by focusing and intensifying the blast waves inside the helmet.
When people suffer a concussion, is the evidence of that head trauma just hanging out in their bloodstream, waiting to be found? A U.S. Army project made news late last week by claiming to have found a biomarker for traumatic brain injury, which could allow for a simple diagnosis via blood test.
Make no mistake—a biomarker would be a tremendous medical advance in catching an elusive and hard-to-quantify condition. But don’t get too excited just yet: This was a preliminary study, and some other neuroscientists are not convinced the test will work on in a real, clinical trail.
Army Col. Dallas Hack, who has oversight of the research, says recent data show the blood test, which looks for unique proteins that spill into the blood stream from damaged brain cells, accurately diagnosing mild traumatic brain injury in 34 patients. Doctors can miss these injuries because the damage does not show up on imaging scans, and symptoms such as headaches or dizziness are ignored or downplayed by the victims. [USA Today]
Hack certainly wasn’t going to downplay the achievement by his team, which partners with the Florida-based company Banyan Biomarkers on this project.
Army Col. Dallas Hack says the new technique could rival the discovery of unique proteins in the 1970s that help doctors identify heart disease. “This will in fact do for brain injury what that test did for chest pain,” Hack said. “It’s going to change medicine entirely.” [UPI]
We’re coming off the first weekend of the NFL season, full of the bone-crunching hits and brain-rattling tackles that fans have come to love. But never before have fans been so attuned to the consequences of that violence, with concussions and other brain injuries in particular gathering more attention than ever at the start of this autumn’s season. And it’s not just at the professional level.
Owen Thomas killed himself this spring. He was 21, a defensive lineman and captain for the University of Pennsylvania football team, and he hanged himself in his apartment. Any out-of-nowhere suicide by a seemingly happy person leaves those left behind grappling for an explanation. But when doctors completed their autopsy of Thomas, they found something startling: evidence of incipient chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the condition caused by repetitive brain trauma that’s been showing up in many former NFL players.
Does the human brain have a “God spot”–a particular region that regulates feelings of spirituality and connection to the universe? One year ago, DISCOVER reported on a scientific study of spiritual people that couldn’t pinpoint one location in the brain as key to controlling religious feelings. But now a new study proposes that there is a link between the physical make-up of the brain and attitudes towards religion and spirituality.
By observing brain cancer patients before and after brain surgery, researchers in Italy have found that damage to the posterior part of the brain, specifically in an area called the parietal cortex, can increase patients’ feelings of “self transcendence,” or feeling at one with the universe. The parietal cortex is the region that is is usually involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation [New Scientist].