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In the news: Man's brain rewired itself

http://www.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/07/03/brain.recovery.ap/index.html

Excerpts of article:

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (AP) -- Doctors have their first proof that a man who was barely conscious for nearly 20 years regained speech and movement because his brain spontaneously rewired itself by growing tiny new nerve connections to replace the ones sheared apart in a car crash.

Terry Wallis, 42, is thought to be the only person in the United States to recover so dramatically so long after a severe brain injury. He still needs help eating and cannot walk, but his speech continues to improve and he can count to 25 without interruption.

Wallis' sudden recovery happened three years ago at a rehabilitation center in Mountain View, Arkansas, but doctors said the same cannot be hoped for people in a persistent vegetative state, such as Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who died last year after a fierce right-to-die court battle. Nor do they know how to make others with less serious damage, like Wallis, recover.

Wallis has complete amnesia about the two decades he spent barely conscious, but remembers his life before the injury.

"He still thinks Ronald Reagan is president," his father, Jerry, said in a statement, adding that until recently his son insisted he was 20 years old.

Wallis was 19 when he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him briefly in a coma and then in a minimally conscious state, in which he was awake but uncommunicative other than occasional nods and grunts, for more than 19 years.

"The nerve fibers from the cells were severed, but the cells themselves remained intact," unlike Schiavo, whose brain cells had died, said Dr. James Bernat, a neurologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, who is familiar with the research.

Nerve cells that have not died can form new connections; for example, nerves in the arms and legs can grow about an inch (2.5 centimeters) a month after they are severed or damaged. However, this happens far less often in the brain.

The new research suggests that instead of the sudden recovery Wallis seemed to make when he began speaking and moving three years ago, he actually may have been slowly recovering all along, as nerves in his brain formed new connections at a glacial pace until enough were present to make a network.

 

"It's the sort of case that ought to be studied in great depth and I compliment the investigators for doing that," Bernat said. "Most neurologists would have been willing to bet money that whatever the cause of it, if it hadn't changed in 19 years wasn't going to change now. So it's really extraordinary.

Wallis' father said his son is now able to make jokes. "That was something he wasn't able to do early in his recovery," Jerry Wallis said. "He now seems almost exactly like his old self. And he very often tells us how glad he is to be alive."

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