Today's Medical Miracle: Magnet Snaps Man Out Of a Coma

By Boonsri Dickinson | October 16, 2008 3:28 pm

eye.jpg It’s like they waved a magic wand over 26-year-old Josh Villa’s head. For the first time, researchers have used a magnet to literally jolt a person out of a vegetative state. Villa had spent the past three years in a coma, after a car crash left him with traumatic brain injuries.

The “magic,” of course, was no magic at all, but rather an example of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a brain stimulation technique that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain by placing a large electromagnetic coil on a person’s scalp. Typically, TMS is used to treat patients suffering from migraine, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and depression—but in this case, scientists used TMS as a last resort to treat Villa after he showed no signs of improvement after spending a year in a coma.

Here’s how it worked:

The magnet excited brain cells by sending a charge to the right prefrontal dorsolateral cortex region of the brain, an area connected to the brainstem that’s critical in signaling the rest of the brain to wake up. Villa awoke after 15 sessions, but doctors ceased the magnetic therapy after 30 sessions. Without the therapy, Villa became fatigued and began to regress. Six weeks later, he was put through 10 more sessions and sent home because he didn’t show any more improvement.

While his words are very slurred and he is not back to his old self, he can express some emotions. His girlfriend looks at his eye movements to read his emotions: When he blinks his eyes twice, he’s telling her that he loves her. The story is similar to that of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby was paralyzed by a stroke and blinked his left eye to communicate, giving us a sense of the world through the eyes of a “motionless body.”

Related Content:

DISCOVER: Vegetative States
DISCOVER: TMS and Sleep
DISCOVER: Q&A with Oliver Sacks

Credit: flickr/ Bridgey

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