Brain, Heal Thyself

brain repair

An unassuming former auto mechanic named Terry Wallis may hold the answer to the question of whether the brain can heal itself, reports CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston.

Twenty years ago, Wallis was thrown from a car in an accident. He suffered severe brain injuries, but was able to survive in what doctors call a minimally conscious state — he was unable to move or speak, but was able to respond with head-nodding and eye contact.

But one day, three years ago, he just "woke up."

"Over a three-day period, he went from saying his first couple of words to recovery of fluent speech," says Dr. Nicholas Schiff at Weill Cornell Medical College. "It's truly a remarkable case."

While Wallis' speech is difficulty to understand, his recovery is so remarkable that scientists wanted to study his brain, using cutting-edge imaging technology which uses color coding to show areas of growth and activity. Their findings are truly groundbreaking.

"There was an astonishing new finding that we were not expecting," says Dr. Henning Voss of Weill Cornell Medical College.

For 18 months, doctors documented the growth of new fibers — not brain cells, but tiny new pathways that seemed to restore function: speech, personality and even a limited ability to move.

"This may be reconnection of intact healthy nerve cells that make new processes and form new networks," Schiff says.

Schiff and his colleagues admit they may never know for sure what caused Wallis to wake up in the first place. But pictures of his brain captured since then offer unequivocal proof that his brain is somehow mending itself.

"It sets a new outer bound for what's possible for certain patients," Schiff says.

For now, looking at this one incredible case, brain specialists know they're standing at the edge of a new frontier of understanding.