In October 2011, Nicholas Gnazzo suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car wreck and spent several weeks in a coma, according to the Huffington Post. Last January, he was given a drug, amantadine, which is generally used for treating the flu and Parkinson’s disease. Soon, he began moving his head in response to yes and no questions. He now communicates with gestures, such as pointing to his glasses when he needs them. It is too soon to know if Amantadine is responsible for hastening his recovery.
In March 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study authored by Joseph Giacino, Ph.D., who is head of the neuropsychology department at Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Center. The study involved 184 patients, all of whom had suffered severe brain injuries. Approximately one-third of them were in vegetative states.
Half of the patients were given amantadine every day for four weeks and the other half given a placebo. The group receiving amantadine made significant advances. They were able to respond to commands, give yes and no answers and some even able to use a spoon. The recovery process slowed down when the amantadine treatment was stopped. Two weeks after treatment ended, the group who received the amantadine was at a recovery level on a par with the group who had received the placebo.
CBS news reports that every year, approximately 1.7 million people are involved in some type of traumatic accident which causes brain damage. Some injuries are mild and heal themselves. About 52,000 people die. The amantadine study provides a glimmer of hope to the 275,000 who remain severely debilitated and hospitalized indefinitely.
John and Kim, last name withheld, found their life instantly changed when Kim suffered a brain hemorrhage. She required surgery and when she woke up, she was really barely conscious. John says she could squeeze his finger but could barely speak. After six weeks of using the drug, Kim’s communication and speech skills improved dramatically. She commented, “I think it’s going very well.” John says amantadine “kept all our hopes for her alive.”
Many questions remain, such as whether or not the drug improves the long-term outcome. Even so, physicians working in the field are cautiously optimistic about its future use. Dr. Susan Connors noted that false hope can be cruel to family members of those with traumatic brain injuries, but amantadine therapy offers “a little piece of hope, the real kind.”