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How One Brain Came Back From Unconsciousness

By: Stephen S. Hall
Photo: Dylan Coulter for New York Magazine; Dylan Rizzo, April 2015.

After a serious car accident in December 2010, Dylan Rizzo was left in a deep coma with minimal chances of regaining consciousness or regaining meaning full recovery. Serious brain injuries are extremely difficult to diagnose, and the diagnosis is often flawed. Timelines and predictions are often disobeyed by persistent patients that defy the odds, as is the case with Dylan Rizzo

New neurological research suggests unconscious patient has more consciousness than previously believed which means neuroscience is changing the meaning of the word “hopeless.”

This is one story that defies the odds. Dylan came back from unconsciousness. Read and excerpt below and then follow the link to read the full story from the New York Magazine.

Day 43

How did Dylan’s brain, or any brain, make the momentous transition from vegetative, unconscious wakefulness to conscious awareness? The exact process remains mysterious, in part because every traumatic injury inflicts a unique pattern of damage on the cells and circuitry of the brain. Research by Nicholas Schiff at Weill Cornell suggests that consciousness begins to reemerge when the parts of the brain that receive sensory information reestablish contact with the frontal lobes, which interpret and act on this information. That latent circuitry still needs to be reactivated and coordinated. Schiff argues that that part of the healing process is driven by a small region of the thalamus, deep in the brain. “It’s like a power station that supports organized behavior in the frontal lobes,” he said.

Once Dylan moved out of the ICU and into a regular room, the Rizzos began tuning the TV to programs they knew Dylan would like, usually a Bruins hockey game or a Celtics basketball game. On an evening in early February, the Bruins were playing Montreal on the hospital-room television when, in the second period, the two goalies got into a fight. Dylan perked up. “He hasn’t taken his eyes off the TV,” the family reported. “He’s moving his mouth trying to say something.”

Day 44

Six weeks after the accident, Dylan’s doctors performed a second MRI. Remarkably, and unexpectedly, the brain scan suggested that some of Dylan’s damaged wiring had begun to mend. “To our knowledge,” the doctors noted later, “this type of reversal has not been previously described with serial neuroimaging or in a case with such a widespread extent of axonal injury.” Dylan’s doctors couldn’t say if the repairs reflected the healing of injured cells or the ability of surviving cells to make new connections. The process, which people refer to as “plasticity,” is much more robust in a young brain than in an old brain, Edlow explained. One of the revelations of recent research is evidence that severe injury can activate mechanisms of neural development that normally deploy during childhood.

Reference: The Brain – How One Brain Came Back From Unconsciousness by Stephen S. Hall
Accessed: March 15, 2017
Published: June 10, 2015

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