SOURCE: Northwestern University, news release, Jan. 22, 2015
THURSDAY, Jan. 22, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Hearing their loved ones tell familiar stories can help brain injury patients in a coma regain consciousness faster and have a better recovery, a new study suggests.
The study included 15 male and female brain injury patients, average age 35, who were in a vegetative or minimally conscious state. Their brain injuries were caused by car or motorcycle crashes, bomb blasts or assaults.
Beginning an average of 70 days after they suffered their brain injury, the patients were played recordings of their family members telling familiar stories that were stored in the patients' long-term memories.
The recordings were played over headphones four times a day for six weeks, according to the study published Jan. 22 in the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.
"We believe hearing those stories in parents' and siblings' voices exercises the circuits in the brain responsible for long-term memories," study author Theresa Pape, a neuroscientist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University's School of Medicine in Chicago, said in a university news release.
"That stimulation helped trigger the first glimmer of awareness," she added.
This increased awareness can help coma patients wake more easily, be more aware of their surroundings and start to respond to conversations and directions, Pape noted.
"After the study treatment, I could tap them on the shoulder, and they would look at me. Before the treatment, they wouldn't do that," she said.
The patients were able to actively participate in physical, speech and occupational therapy, all of which are crucial in their recovery, Pape said.
This type of story therapy also helps patients' families, the study authors noted.
"Families feel helpless and out of control when a loved one is in a coma. 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," Pape explained.
The family members recorded at least eight stories about things such as a family wedding or a special road trip together.
"It had to be something [patients would] 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," Pape explained.
The largest gains in patient recovery came in the first two weeks of starting the story therapy, with smaller gains over the next four weeks.
Recording and playing familiar stories for coma patients is something all families can do, said Pape, who recommended that families work with a therapist to help them construct the stories.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about coma.