People have long debated whether or not loved ones in a coma could hear them when they spoke to them. They’ve also wondered if what they said or the way it was said might make a difference in the recovery time of that loved one. Turns out the answer to both questions is a resounding “YES!”
A study by Northwestern Medicine and Hines VA Hospital shows that speaking to loved ones in a specific way can not only be heard, it can help to awaken the unconscious brain, speeding recovery as a result. The study was recently published in Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair. In case that’s not reading material you have right at hand, I’ll fill you in the findings right here.
The study was conducted on 15 patients with traumatic closed head injuries. They were in a vegetative or minimally conscious state. The study was randomized and placebo-controlled, meaning that there was a group that received no treatment and a group that received treatment.
The treatment consisted of loved ones making a recording of the story of a shared event from the past. They included sensory details in the story – things like “your hair was blowing in the wind” or “we could smell the ocean.” The tape was played, via headphones, in 10-minute sessions, four times a day, for six weeks.
At the start of the testing, patients were tested to check their response to bells and whistles, among other sensory stimuli. They were also given a baseline MRI while being read to by familiar and unfamiliar voices.
After six weeks of listening to the recorded stories, Pape repeated the earlier baseline tests in an MRI. In one, patients listened to familiar and unfamiliar voices telling the same story they heard at baseline (a short joke about a man buying ice-cream and getting a pickle with it.)
The MRI image showed a change in the oxygen level, indicating greater responsiveness to the unfamiliar voice telling a story. The oxygen level did not change for the familiar voice, which remained the same as baseline.
“This indicates the patient’s ability to process and understand what they’re hearing is much better,” Pape said. “At baseline they didn’t pay attention to that non-familiar voice. But now they are processing what that person is saying.’
Bottom Line: Taking the time to tell a meaningful story from the past, filled with sensory descriptions and details known to both of you could play a significant role in your loved one’s recovery.