Seeing a loved one in a coma is a devastating moment for family members. Many feel they are powerless to the situation and have no way of helping out. It could be, however, that the sound of a familiar voice is the best tool for coma recovery. A recent study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University Fienberg School of Medicine and the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital has found that hearing a familiar voice telling a story can help coma patients with recovering their consciousness faster and start responding to conversation and directions.

“Families feel helpless and out of control when a loved one is in a coma,” lead researcher Theresa Pape said in a statement. “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 and her colleagues gathered data for the Familiar Auditory Sensory Training (FAST) by enrolling 15 patients who suffered a traumatic closed head injury due to motorcycle or car accidents, bomb traumas, and assaults. The participants, 12 men and three women at an average of 35, were in a vegetative or minimally conscious state and started the FAST treatment 70 days after their injury, including baseline testing that tested each patient’s responsiveness to sensory information — like bells and whistles — if they opened their eyes when asked to, and if they could visually track someone walking across the room.

Researchers created audio recordings of family members telling a familiar story that the patients heard four times a week for six weeks via headphones. They also gauged how the blood oxygen levels in the brain changed while listening to recordings by exposing patients to both familiar and unfamiliar voices telling different stories while in an MRI at baseline. Families of coma patients sat down with therapists to discuss at least eight important stories that would resonate with their loved ones.

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

At the end of the six weeks MRI scans revealed the patients’ brains increased in neural activity when they heard a loved one calling out their name and telling a memorable story. Patients who heard the recordings of a familiar voice covered their consciousness faster and had more of an overall improved recovery compared to patients who did not hear recordings. Following the six weeks of recorded stories, the research team found that listening to unfamiliar voices telling the same story heard at baseline led to changes in blood oxygen level, meaning increased responsiveness to an unfamiliar voice.

“This indicates the patient’s ability to process and understand what they’re hearing is much better,” Pape added. “At baseline, they didn’t pay attention to that non-familiar voice. But now they are processing what that person is saying.’’

Source: Steiner M, Rosenow J, Pape T, et al. Placebo-Controlled Trial of Familiar Auditory Sensory Training for Acute Severe Traumatic Brain Injury. A Preliminary Report. Nuerorehabilitation & Neural Repair. 2015.