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Patient Revives After 19 Years By Rewiring Brain 419

Posted by Zonk
from the my-favorite-organ dept.
dylanduck writes "A study of the recovery of a man who spent 19 years in a minimally conscious state has revealed the likely cause of his regained consciousness - his brain rewired itself around the injured areas into totally novel structures. It suggests the human brain shows far greater potential for recovery and regeneration then ever suspected." From the article: "There were ... significant changes between scans taken just two months after the recovery, and the most recent, at 18 months. Some of the new pathways had receded again, while others seem to have strengthened and taken over as Wallis continued to improve."
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Patient Revives After 19 Years By Rewiring Brain

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  • by 10Ghz (453478) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:01AM (#15655918)
    "Surprisingly, the circuits look nothing like normal brain anatomy"

    Well, it IS possible! Right?
  • by zegebbers (751020) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:01AM (#15655921) Homepage
    it took me about 5 tries before I realised this wasn't about brain patents :(
  • by Homology (639438) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:05AM (#15655934)
    that although Slashdot regulars generally are in a "minimally conscious state", for rewiring to occur there must be something to rewire in the first place.
  • by gijoel (628142) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:07AM (#15655938)
    Because I'd be pretty pissed if I spent 18 years in a coma and I wasn't psychic.
  • by dk-software-engineer (980441) * on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:08AM (#15655943)
    Wow. The brain is without doubt the most interesting part of the (male) human body.
  • by l33td00d42 (873726) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:11AM (#15655960)
    ... was unavailable for comment.

    /so going to hell
    • Re:Terri Schiavo... (Score:5, Informative)

      by ScentCone (795499) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:18AM (#15655984)
      Terri Schiavo ... was unavailable for comment.

      Thanks for taking one for team and saying what everyone else was thinking. But just in case anyone is really thinking there's an important parallel there or anything, remember that her case was substantially different: most of her brain was literally dead and gone - actually a mush of fluid. Rewiring "around" an injured area (as in the case cited) depends upon having surrounding brain material that's still viable. She was coasting on real low-level left-overs, and there simply wasn't a platform for that sort of recovery.
      • by bigzigga (888590)
        Perhaps you're right, but isn't a little presumptuous to say that in response to a story that completely defies our current understanding of the human brain?
        • Last I checked, the brain couldn't do much when it's missing or goo- she had a 2/3ds-of-her-brain lobotomy, if that aids your understanding of her condition. This man just had localized injury, not anything of that order.
        • Re:Terri Schiavo... (Score:4, Informative)

          by MightyMartian (840721) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @12:26PM (#15656524) Journal
          It hardly defies our current knowledge of the brain. Rewiring happens in stroke victims, for instance. Mrs. Schiavo's forebrain was missing entirely, replaced by cerebral fluid. Rewiring is one thing, but the only thing that would have made her better would have been regrowing.
      • Early intervention might have saved her though, her brain would have turned to mush over time. 15 years later the horse had really bolted.
      • You can see a CT image of Terri's brain taken in 1996 here [utah.edu]. Scroll to the bottom.

        You are right in that Terri's case was substantially different.

        • by plunge (27239) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @11:12AM (#15656219)
          While Schiavo in particular was indeed gorked beyond ungorking, its a little misleading to show laypeople that scan and claim that it dramatically demonstrates the point. There are actually people walking around today with CT scans that are similarly horrifying in the huge spaces. There are people making do okay with some very abnormal brains. The difference with Schiavo is that the spaces were caused by particular sorts of massive brain inujries and the complete atrophy of particular areas of the brain. But you can't tell that directly from a CT, especially as a layperson. For all a layperson knows, the critical areas could simply be moved around and squished but still functioning to some degree. In Schiavo they were not, but a layperson just can't tell so dramatically as looking at one CT.

          It's also important to remember that the brain is not ALL just undifferentiated mush, but has all sort of specialized areas that cannot be replaced by other specialized areas. The guy in this article has damage to some of those areas, and more importantly ther breaking of important connections BETWEEN areas, but not a total loss of any area: they still had functioning sections that rewired and worked overtime to compensate. However, if both of your hippocampi die, it's not like your amygdala is suddenly going to switch over and start performing their functions.

          This case has been paraded around because of the Schiavo case, but in doing so its only illuminated how medically ignorant some people are: they don't care about the specifics, or learning about how the brain works, and they lump together uncertainties about one area of knowledge about the brain (its ability to create new connections to repair damage, which contrary to the sort of hyperbolic claims of the article, we've always known is pretty plastic and this is just an extreme example) and try to pretend that raise questions about a completely different area of knowledge: all without acknowledging that there are any key differences or even thinking about them.
          • It's also important to remember that the brain is not ALL just undifferentiated mush, but has all sort of specialized areas that cannot be replaced by other specialized areas.
            Apparently not, as this piece [newyorker.com] on hemimegalencephaly amply illustrates. The brain is siginificantly more adaptable than anyone imagined, or so it would seem.
            • by plunge (27239) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @01:05PM (#15656655)
              Again, this is the problem when people use grand generalizations about complex things like the brain without knowing specifically what they are talking about. Hemispheres have basic redundancies built into their structures. That's just not the same thing as removing key structures entirely, from both hemispheres.
            • Oh, and more importantly, we're generally there talking about very young developing brains. Early on, the brain is far more plastic and undifferntiated: like a poetic jell-o mold that hasn't set yet, it hasn't taken a shape that can be destroyed. But that doesn't last in adulthood. It's also worth noting that the structures being removed in these cases are, in fact the most undifferntiated and general purpose parts of the brain (the ones dealing with overall higher consciousness): not the specific struct
      • Re:Terri Schiavo... (Score:3, Informative)

        by DaveInAustin (549058)
        Her brain damage was caused by oxygen deprivation [wikipedia.org], not a physical trauma. While it's very rare for someone to come back from a brain injury like Mr. Wallis' after being in a coma for more than a few years, it has never happened for someone like Ms. Schiavo.
        • Re:Terri Schiavo... (Score:3, Informative)

          by TubeSteak (669689)

          While it's very rare for someone to come back from a brain injury like Mr. Wallis' after being in a coma for more than a few years, it has never happened for someone like Ms. Schiavo.

          The irrational (yet semi-logical) response to that statement would be: Maybe that's because they didn't wait long enough in Mrs. Schiavo's case.

          I know, her brain was part mush, but that really wasn't the point as far as the uber-fundies were concerned. They (and certain moran Senators/Congressmen) claim she was not in a veggie

    • Someone else here reads OpinionJournal.com.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:13AM (#15655966)
    The Cosby Show is over.
  • Yes! (Score:5, Funny)

    by MyLongNickName (822545) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:21AM (#15655995) Journal
    There is hope for Slashdot after all!
  • Neuronal remodeling (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BWJones (18351) * on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:22AM (#15656002) Homepage Journal
    Neuroscientists in the epilepsy and learning and memory communities have known for years about the nervous systems ability to rewire and remodel in response to deafferentation. In fact, the reluctance to believe in this by other members of the neuroscience community (vision community) led to some two decades of misunderstanding of retinal degenerative diseases until we came along and demonstrated conclusively in the retina that remodeling also occurs. The deal is that neurons need input. They either get it via glutamatergic signaling or calcium mediated signaling in normal circumstances. When those signaling mechanisms are disturbed, neurons either rewire seeking additional input, or they die.

    • by Alexandra Erenhart (880036) <saiyanprincess@gma i l .com> on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:29AM (#15656038) Homepage
      I was tought in biology class back in highschool than nerves has the ability to regenerate themselves over time. A friend of mine suffered a great injury on one of his arms because of an accident, that left him with a piece of titanium on it and a paralized hand. He couldn't move it because his nerves got cut. But after some time he regained movility of his hand and fingers, as the axons grew and reconnected. Seems obvious to me that brain cells can do the same.
      • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @01:15PM (#15656691)
        Axons can regrow if the neuron itself is still alive. Neurons don't normally (there are notable exceptions) reproduce so once you kill the cell it's gone.

        Your friend's case is sort of like spontaneously repairing a cut trace on the motherboard of a computer. This case is more like the extra floating point unit in the processor reconfiguring itself to replace a damaged instruction decoder.
  • Hmm... (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:23AM (#15656005)
    After rewiring his brain he is now BS 7671 compliant and can be used in europe.
  • by business_kid (973043) <business,kid&gmail,com> on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:24AM (#15656011)
    Does this mean that the incurably unintellectual politicians and religious leaders we seem to put in charge of everything can hope to rewire and do a better Job :-)?
    • Mind you, those usually would do good in IQ tests, yet believe in some rather ridiculous things... this patient's rewiring solved a hardware problem, those people just need a software upgrade.
  • by Boo5000. (732797) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:29AM (#15656036)
    I would like to know what limits the rewiring rate in such a state? Is it metabolic? Or does the rate of new axon growth and synapse formation follow the normal growth rate of neural cells late in life - which, as I recall, is fairly slow?. This was obviously a long process, but was there a certain "critical point" reached during the rewiring that, once passed, assured recovery of functions? Is this subconscious dreaming or thinking that manipulates signaling, and could simple brain simulaion methods achieve a similar goal in the absence of such a process? Hopefully such a case generates academic interest that will help progress this area of brain research.
  • by dedeman (726830) <{dedeman1} {at} {yahoo.com}> on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:31AM (#15656050)
    Well, this is absolutley incredible news, but I am curious if some would see it as being a survival mechinism?

    Except for Rip Van Winkle, I don't think that a 19 year period of repair and adaption would really lend itself to survival. Not to say that this isn't miraculous, but, I'm sure the recovery time will be significant.

    Besides, would you really want to wake up 20 years older, with years of rehabilitation to look forward to? I would be more concerned with the ethics of keeping someone alive for that long.
    • by Wireless Joe (604314) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @11:09AM (#15656203) Homepage
      Besides, would you really want to wake up 20 years older, with years of rehabilitation to look forward to?
      My son developed Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) soon after he was born. PVL is usually characterized by large cysts in the brain that affect particular functions. In my son's case, the PVL was diffuese and spread throughout his brain in small, rice-grain sized cysts and affects his general functionality. We're not "keeping him alive" in a medical sence, but he does seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in a "minimally conscious state".

      He's four years old now, and I would love if my son, at any age, woke up one day and started to learn the things he's missed (talking, crawling and then walking, etc). My wife and I read a lot about brain injury and the possibility of his recovery. The nature of his injury always gives me hope that because the damaged areas are so small, it may be easier for his brain to compensate.

      Unfortunately, because of the state of medical research in the USA (stem cell especially), My family is probably going to have to travel to another country to take advantage of any treatments that may be developed in the next few years.
      • I cannot imagine what that's like for you. If you can take any comfort in knowing that other people find that disease to be intolerable and want a cure, please do.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        I don't know you and I'm not even religious, but I'll pray that day comes for you and your son.
  • TFA: Rip Van Winkle (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sm62704 (957197) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:32AM (#15656054) Journal
    Wallis regained the ability to move and communicate, and started getting to know his now 20 year old daughter - a difficult process considering he believed himself to be 19, and that Ronald Reagan was still president.

    I was in a real bad wreck in 1976, my brain hardly worked for a year or more, but I got better. I wonder what a scan of it would look like? Would it be wierdly wired like this guy's?

    Few people I know would be surprised to find my brain was wired wierd.

    Since then, the thought has occurred to me that I could have actually gone into a coma and the last forty years could have been a dream. But then, any of you could have had an accident and not know it, and be dreaming this. So there's little point in not behaving as if reality is real, especially considering the incredibly high probability that this IS real.

    I wonder if he dreamed?
    • I wonder if he dreamed?

      FTA, he remembers his life before the accident, but does not remember anything of the last ~20 years. Maybe he did dream and can't remember, but I guess doctors would have noticed some brain activity before.
  • by amliebsch (724858) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:33AM (#15656063) Journal

    NEWSIE:
    Tonight, on Eyewitness News: a man who's been in a coma for 19 years wakes up.

    MAN:
    Do Sonny and Cher still have that stupid show?

    NEWSIE:
    No, uh, she won an Oscar, and he's a Congressman.

    MAN:
    Good night! [Turns over and dies.]

  • let me guess... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Schapsmann (969126)
    that guy is named Corwin, isn't he????
  • by Viol8 (599362) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @10:48AM (#15656115)
    "suggests the human brain shows far greater potential for recovery and regeneration then ever suspected."

    Hardly. This took 19 YEARS. Thats hardly what I'd call potential. Yes its surprising
    but given that time period who knows what alive but dormant neurons will do on their
    own. This is unlikely to be an evolved response since in the wild a creature with this
    level of brain damage would be lucky to survive 19 hours.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    We keep hearing stories about people who regain consciousness in spite of the fact that the 'experts' say they can't. It worries me a lot that the doctors are quick to pronounce somebody brain dead so they can rip out the organs. Often, as was the case here, relatives will insist on keeping someone alive over the objections of the doctors.

    Of course the other reason I'm against organ transplants is that the Chinese harvest organs from prisoners.

    Anyway, staying on topic, this kind of thing happens too often
    • by PhotoBoy (684898) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @11:13AM (#15656222)
      I believe the difference between this case and something like Terry Schiavo is that there was still measurable brain activity in this guy so he wasn't brain dead.

      But I agree it would be pretty shitty to wake up and find half your body gone to organ donation. The recent successful face transplant in France used part of the face of a brain dead patient. Imagine waking up to be told you'd had your face removed and given to someone else!
      • But I agree it would be pretty shitty to wake up and find half your body gone to organ donation.

        Lol! If half your body is gone you'd be pretty much 110% dead wouldn't you? And it's not like they would bother to keep the life support running after taking your organs either (or face for that matter).

        /greger

  • happens to me after I've been forced to use Windows for a while.

    "his brain rewired itself around the injured areas into totally novel structures. It suggests the human brain shows far greater potential for recovery and regeneration then ever suspected."
  • Poor guy (Score:4, Interesting)

    by The MAZZTer (911996) <megazzt AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @11:34AM (#15656292) Homepage

    I mean think about it, last time he was awake was in 1987. The world has changed ALOT since then... I wonder how I'd feel?

    "Internet? What's that? Computers, those are the huge things that big businesses and the government use, right?"

  • El bulto (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Spy der Mann (805235) <{spydermann.slashdot} {at} {gmail.com}> on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @11:41AM (#15656323) Homepage Journal
    There was a mexican movie (ficticious) about a 19-yo guy who went into coma in 1971 and woke up in 1992, having to cope with a grown up family, an older (and remarried) wife, and of course, new political times.

    It was called "El bulto" [imdb.com] (the bag). Very interesting movie.
  • by Daath (225404) <lp@@@coder...dk> on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @12:04PM (#15656436) Homepage Journal
    Actually small children can have at least half of their brain removed [newyorker.com] and still function normally in later life. It's pretty amazing! I once read about a man who had had to take a brain scan. The scan revealed that the only brain tissue he had, only covered the inner surface of his skull, apparently he was born like that, and he functioned normally. Of course I cannot find any documentation about it now, but the link I've provided describes a "normal" procedure. It can cure rare epeleptic disorders and other things.
    Mind boggling ;)
  • TV Show? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Joao (155665) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @12:11PM (#15656462) Homepage
    I saw a TV show about this guy some time ago (PBS? Discovery? National Geographic?). Yes, he is awake, but the poor guy is in very bad shape. He has very limited use of his body; his brain is unable to store any new information for more than a few seconds; and his frontal lobe is basically gone so he has no sense of boundaries when communicating with people. His 20-year old daughter is his primary caretaker, and since he thinks he's a 19 year-old and is unable to remember that she is his daughter, he keeps asking her for sexual favors and groping her any chance he has. He is also very verbally abusive towards her and pretty much everyone else.

    Yes, he's no longer in a coma, but he is far from functional.
  • More information (Score:3, Informative)

    by lazybratsche (947030) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @12:16PM (#15656480)
    I couldn't find the actual published study that the New Scientist article (sort of) referenced (maybe it hasn't been accepted for publication yet?). However, I did find this article [perpich.com] by the auther mentioned, which is a very readable look at a few cases of brain-damaged patients (including an explanation as to why Terry Schaivo isn't in the same category at all). Unfortunately it doesn't go very in depth into the details of how Willis' brain rewired itself, which I was interested in. Still, very informative reading.
  • by DaFallus (805248) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @12:55PM (#15656629)
    Somehow he has cobbled together a random assortment of other brainwaves into a working mind.
  • by hernick (63550) on Tuesday July 04, 2006 @03:55PM (#15657238)
    Terry woke up three years ago, and the story was rather widely reported back then. In fact, Terri Schiavo has, in her time, often been compared to Terry - in fact, their medical cases share almost no similarities.

    The story itself has woken up in 2006, for reasons unknown. You can find a better article than the one of the front page at http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060703/full/060703 -5.html [nature.com]

    This everything2 article is probably the best I found about Terry, including updates from 2004: http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=147582 5 [everything2.com]

    Also, some updates on the family's fight with health services, from 2005: http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2005/6/21 /143438.shtml [newsmax.com]

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