After Louis' awakening was publicised in the South African media, Dr Ralf Clauss, a physician of nuclear medicine - the use of radioactive isotopes in diagnostic scans - at the Medical University of Southern Africa, contacted Nel to suggest carrying out a scan on Louis. "The results were so unbelievable that I got other colleagues to check my findings," says Clauss, who now works at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford. "We did scans before and after we gave Louis zolpidem. Areas that appeared black and dead beforehand began to light up with activity afterwards. I was dumbfounded - and I still am."
Clauss says immediate improvements in the left parietal lobe and the left lentiform nucleus were visible. In lay terms, these are important for motor function, sight, speech and hearing.
"I remember saying to Dr Nel that we were witnessing medical history," says Clauss.
No one yet knows exactly how a sleeping pill could wake up the seemingly dead brain cells, but Nel and Clauss have a hypothesis. After the brain has suffered severe trauma, a chemical known as Gaba (gamma amino butyric acid) closes down brain functions in order to conserve energy and help cells survive. However, in such a long-term dormant state, the receptors in the brain cells that respond to Gaba become hypersensitive, and as Gaba is a depressant, it causes a persistent vegetative state.
It is thought that during this process the receptors are in some way changed or deformed so that they respond to zolpidem differently from normal receptors, thus breaking the hold of Gaba. This could mean that instead of sending patients to sleep as usual, it makes dormant areas of the brain function again and some comatose patients wake up.
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