In a new medical study sure to remind the world of the debate surrounding the forced dehydration death of Terri Schiavo, researchers found the injured brain of a man in a “vegetative state” for 19 years rewired itself, permitting him to renew communication with his loved ones.

The findings by Nicholas Schiff and his colleagues at Weill Medical College at Cornell University suggest the human brain shows far greater potential for recovery and regeneration then ever before suspected.



Terry Wallis (BBC)

In 1984, 19-year-old Terry Wallis was thrown from his pick-up truck in an accident near his Massachusetts home. He was not found until 24 hours later, in a coma with massive brain injuries.

Within a few weeks he had stabilized in what was alternately characterized as a “minimally conscious state” or a “permanent vegetative state.” Most doctors saw little hope he would ever improve.

And he didn’t – for 19 years. Then, in 2003, he started to speak.

Over a three-day period, Wallis regained the ability to move and communicate, and started getting to know his 20-year-old daughter, only 1 year old at the time of the accident. Wallis awoke believing Ronald Reagan was still president.

To find out what was happening in Wallis’s brain, Schiff and other researchers used a new brain imaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging. The system tracks water molecules, revealing the brain’s white matter tracts – like a wiring diagram. They combined this with more traditional PET scanning, to show which brain areas were active.

The team’s findings suggest Wallis’ brain had gradually developed new pathways and unusual anatomical structures to re-establish functional connections, compensating for the normal brain pathways lost in the accident.

They found that new axons – the branches that connect neurons together – seemed to have grown, establishing new working brain circuits. In short, his brain had rewired itself.

Wallis was frequently classified as being in a permanent vegetative state. Though his family, like Schiavo’s, fought for a re-evaluation after seeing many promising signs that he was trying to communicate, their requests were turned down.

Wallis, now 42, still needs help eating and cannot walk, but his speech continues to improve and he can count to 25 without interruption.

Wallis’ sudden recovery happened three years ago at a rehabilitation center in Mountain View, Ark.

Wallis’ father said his son is now able to make jokes.

“That was something he wasn’t able to do early in his recovery,” Jerry Wallis said. “He now seems almost exactly like his old self. And he very often tells us how glad he is to be alive.”


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For background on the 15-year Terri Schiavo saga, read “The whole Terri Schiavo story.”

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