San Antonio Study Shows Drowning Victims’ Brains Are Largely Intact

Those who survive drowning often experience loss of brain function.

By Wendy RigbyAugust 3, 2017 9:30 am, , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

Each year in the U.S., as many as 3,000 children drown in water. About two-thirds of them are resuscitated, but the brain damage is usually devastating.

Now, a newly-published study by a San Antonio researcher shows there may come a day when doctors can target the brain damage from drowning and perhaps even treat it in the emergency room to change the outcome.

Summer time is prime time for swimming. Water lures even the youngest of children and can lead to disaster.

San Antonio mother Liz Tullis knows this the hard way. Her son Conrad was visiting at his grandfather’s when an accident happened. “When Conrad was 17 months old, he fell into a swimming pool,” she says.

Then, the unthinkable. Her son was breathing, but he wasn’t moving. He was fed through a tube. She had to decide whether to withdraw treatment, put him in long-term care, or take him home.

“There’s not really a road map,” Tullis says.

She took Conrad home. That was 13 years ago. During that time, her son started waking and sleeping, and reacting, she thought, to what was going on around him. He is awake and aware, but unable to communicate.

She was convinced it was no coincidence.

“I started sensing he understood what was going on,” Tullis says.

This determined and curious mother sought out help from a UT Health San Antonio neurologist, Peter Fox, and his scanning technology.

“The brain is the organ that’s most greedy for oxygen,” Fox says.

Fox says when a child inhales water and drowns, their heart stops beating very quickly. By the time they get to an emergency room, they’re usually comatose or convulsing.

Using MRI machines at the Research Imaging Institute, Fox scanned Conrad and nine other children from around the country in similar condition. What he found was surprising.

“The lesion is smack in the motor fibers,” he says.

Using tests that can reveal both structural damage and functional capabilities, Fox has now published his work, which shows the damage in children whose brains have been starved of oxygen in a drowning, is concentrated in a small, specific area in the basal ganglia found deep and near the center of the brain.

UT Health San Antonio Research Imaging Institute

Since the lesions caused by lack of oxygen in drowning victims' brains are near major arteries, researchers may be able to access the damage and treat it in the emergency room to preserve as much function for the child as possible.

Every child Fox scanned had damage in the same place – a crucially important motor pathway. The other results fascinated him.

“The motor system was severely damaged. Perceptual systems, feeling touch, seeing, hearing, were essentially intact. Cognitive structures were in between,” Fox says. “The children are largely cognitively intact, much more intact than has been given credit to them by the medical community.”

The damaged grey and white matter is near major arteries, meaning the location could be reached using interventional radiology, perhaps by threading a catheter to the site and delivering medication to minimize brain damage.

Knowing this provides a new target of sorts and Fox is hopeful.

“This gives us directions to go therapeutically that we didn’t have before,” he says. “This has the potential of saving children from this really devastating syndrome.”

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Liz Tullis

Conrad Tullis (right) is shown here with his mother, Liz, and his brother Garrett.