Familiar stories speed up coma recovery, Feinberg study finds

Shane McKeon, Assistant Campus Editor

Family members’ voices can speed up coma patients’ recoveries, a Feinberg School of Medicine-sponsored study has found.

Patients who heard family members tell familiar stories four times a day for six weeks recovered consciousness faster than patients who did not, the University said in a news release.

“It could be a family wedding or a special road trip together such as going to visit colleges,” lead author Theresa Pape said in the news release. “It had to be something they’d remember, and we needed to bring the stories to life with sensations, temperature and movement. Families would describe the air rushing past the patient as he rode in the Corvette with the top down or the cold air on his face as he skied down a mountain slope.” 

Researchers viewed increased neural activity using an MRI. When patients heard familiar stories, the machine showed yellow and red patches of light in areas of the brain used for language and long-term memory.

Pape said the sped-up recovery comes from the parts of the brain the stories excite.

“We believe hearing those stories in parents’ and siblings’ voices exercises the circuits in the brain responsible for long-term memories,” Pape said in the news release. “That stimulation helped trigger the first glimmer of awareness.”

The study was conducted with Hines VA Hospital. 

Pape also alluded to the stress coma patients’ families feel during the long recovery process.

“Families feel helpless and out of control when a loved one is in a coma,” Pape said in the news release. “It’s a terrible feeling for them. This gives them a sense of control over the patient’s recovery and the chance to be part of the treatment.” 

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