It has been a long-held belief in medicine that patients who remained in a coma for more than a few weeks after suffering a brain injury would be unlikely to ever come out of it. However, recent research has suggested that consciousness isn’t as simple as the medical profession previously thought. It is not a simple case of whether someone is awake or asleep but consciousness is actually more of a spectrum.
Some people who suffer a brain injury remain in a minimally conscious state, which is different to those in a vegetative state, who have no conscious awareness. The people in this minimally conscious state are sometimes able to sense and respond to their environment and these responses can be detected through measuring brainwaves with an EEG.
This additional information has led to some remarkable discoveries about what may bring those in a coma out of it. Rather unusually, a prescription sleep medication can help those who are minimally conscious. This is a paradoxical effect of the medicine that was first recorded in the late 1990s, where a coma patient in South Africa was prescribed sleeping medication to stop him suffering from insomnia.
When the medication was given to him he started to achieve consciousness and even began to talk and move. The medication only lasted a short time but at any time that he was given it he would come out of his vegetative state.
Similar reports of this waking up of coma patients were reported by doctors who are trying the medication on people in a similar state. The medication was certainly not effective in all cases but in many patients woke up and achieved consciousness for the first time in years, although the consciousness only generally lasted for a few hours at a time.