Having a loved one in a “permanent vegetative state” (PVS), which characterizes a type of coma, is devastating. Now that medicine has achieved such an advanced level — and doctors in emergency rooms and hospitals are able to preserve more lives — this unfortunately means that there are more and more cases of PVS occurring as a result.
PVS is a neurological syndrome that is caused by a traumatic event in the brain, which is brought on by some kind of accident, certain drugs, illness, or a stroke. When someone is in this state, he/she can appear to be awake, but will show no signs of awareness.
Often, he/she will seem to go through cycles of sleep and wakefulness (mainly, the eyes will open and close), but won’t be responsive at all to other people and doesn’t seem to be aware of his/her body or environment. The person is normally able to breathe on his/her own and can make random sounds and movements. This type of vegetative state is termed “permanent” when doctors predict that a particular patient will not recover from it.
This is definitely an area of medicine that is ripe for a breakthrough — and a recent study could give families and friends of PVS patients a glimmer of hope.
The study, out of the Royal Surrey County Hospital in the U.K., suggests that a sleeping pill could provide at least temporary relief for people in a permanent vegetative state. Although it might sound bizarre that a sleeping pill of all things could bring someone out of a sleep-like state (and not put them into one), this claim does seem to hold some promise, which is at least worth further investigating.
Researchers looked at three men who had been suffering from PVS for at least three years. Every day, for up to six years, the patients were given doses of zolpidem (“Ambien”), a medication that is normally prescribed for insomnia.
All three men showed some signs of temporary improvement, which, if it is actually due to the drug, is an amazing finding. For example, prior to the study, one of the subjects didn’t seem to be able to communicate; he didn’t respond when someone spoke to him. According to the researchers, just after his first dose, the patient was able to interact with people, verbalize, recall certain things, and perform simple calculations.
The effects, as mentioned, were temporary for the three participants, seeming to last only a few hours, following which the patients would lapse back into their previous PVS.
The researchers believe that an injury causes PVS by interfering with the GABA receptors in the brain (GABA, a.k.a. gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an important neurotransmitter). Zolpidem seems to reverse these effects, thus awakening certain areas of the brain that have been cut off. The U.K. scientists have applied for a patent for this particular use of the sleeping pill.
However, there are other scientists who believe that these findings are not reliable. They think that the patients in the study might have been misdiagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state and that the symptoms are actually just natural signs of recovery from a non- permanent vegetative state.
Obviously, more extensive research is needed before this sleeping pill can be used to treat a condition that was once thought to be permanent.