17. Man Recovers From Near-Coma After Two Decades
For 19 years after a car accident that caused severe brain damage, Terry Wallis lingered speechless in a minimally conscious state, a limbo only a few steps up from a coma. Then one day in 2003, he stunned his mother by calling her "Mom" and, over the next few days, regaining the ability to talk. Nicholas Schiff, a neurologist at Weill Medical College in New York City, was amazed when he examined Wallis's brain eight months later.
In July Schiff and his colleagues reported that Wallis's brain was badly atrophied — but it had not been idle. Using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which can spot neural connections, the researchers saw what appeared to be massive tracts of new axon growth. Wallis's brain had been rewiring itself.
During the year after he regained his speech, Wallis continued to improve, recovering some use of his limbs. A second scan made 18 months after the first one found that his brain was still changing. The first exam had seemed to show thick areas of new connections in the rear cortex of his brain, a region linked to awareness. A year and a half later, those areas looked more normal, and the cerebellum, which controls motor function, showed major changes, consistent with his recent physical improvement.
Schiff's ongoing studies of Wallis and his astounding recovery may transform our understanding of the brain's ability to heal itself. Neurologist Steven Laureys of the University of Liège in Belgium, who has studied similar cases, says, "This is very welcome, because there's so little we know about these late recoveries."