Pape hopes the study will provide an answer to the question that families are desperate to know when a loved one is in a coma: 'Can he hear me?' She is especially eager to know if these family voices can facilitate repair of the brain to improve the subject's ability to function and process and understand information.
Pape's hypothesis is that repeated exposure to familiar voices could help repair the brain's neural networks, some of which become sheared in traumatic brain injury. In a previous small pilot study, Pape observed that subjects in a vegetative state responded more to the voices of people who are familiar to them compared with non-familiar voices.
When those subjects heard voices of their family members, an MRI scan showed that parts of their brain were activated, appearing as bright yellow and red blobs of light scattered in an unorganized pattern. With unfamiliar voices, there was little activation.
"The question became are the familiar voices therapeutic in some way?" Pape asked. "Will they spur an improvement in behavior?"
Her background as a speech pathologist inspired the research. "I was weaned on language processing, how the brain responds to different linguistic stimuli as well as familiar or non-familiar voices, different sounds," Pape said. "This is a very speech pathology-based study."
When a subject is enrolled in the trial, Pape does a baseline functional MRI scan of his brain, examining the reaction to familiar versus unfamiliar voices. In a healthy person, she would expect to see a family member's voice activate the temporal lobe, the site of memory, and the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that pays attention when your
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