A recent study from the University of Munich reported that researchers were able to awaken an 82-year-old woman from a vegetative state by injecting her with activated immune cells. This study, published in the Journal of Medical Case Reports, explains that the woman eventually regained the ability to respond to commands, swallow, and spontaneously move both arms after receiving these weekly injections.
The patient suffered a stroke nine years earlier that resulted in a coma which then led her to enter this vegetative state. Although she retained respiratory and automatic functions, she could not move by herself and she vomited frequently due to tube feeding.
However, the researchers explain that after these treatments “with activated immune cells sampled from our patient’s blood and activated in vitro,” several functions gradually returned. The woman “opened her eyes in the requested direction” and turned to look at people who entered her room. She also regained lost arm strength on both sides and even “spontaneously moved her arm on the side experiencing hemiplegia.”
Hemiplegia is a type of paralysis that affects only one side of the body. Strokes are the most common cause of this form of paralysis.
Three months after beginning the treatment, the woman could also stick her tongue out upon command.
Eventually, her swallowing reflex began to return as well.
Researchers believe that the successful treatment with these activated immune cells may have led to the production of “neuroactive substances, such as neurotrophin-3 and brain-derived neurotrophic factor.”
Furthermore, deterioration in the patient was reversed by these cells, illustrated by her regaining motor strength in her hemiplegic side. Finally, the woman was able to voluntarily carry out motor responses when requested.
Although she later died after the aspiration of vomit following a tube feeding, researchers said they can reasonably conclude that the use of activated immune cells has the potential to “improve the chronic vegetative state in some patients.”
An MSNBC report on the research explains that this case study is particularly important because even after “decades of research in neuroscience and behavioral medicine, no therapies have emerged in the last 50 years that systematically reverse coma in patients that have suffered significant strokes or traumatic brain injuries.”
The article explains that while doctors have become adept at rehabilitative medicine which retrains the minds of patients to work around and compensate for functions lost due to an injury, no solution has been found for those who never wake up. With this study, though, researchers may have found the key that unlocks recovery for those patients and their families who previously had little hope.