Psychedelic therapy shows promise for several medical issues, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. Now, a handful of researchers are experimenting with psychedelics as a way to wake coma patients.
Coma resurrection psychedelic therapy is based on work by Dr. Hyder Khoja, a molecular biologist who develops drug therapies. Dr. Khoja believes that psychedelics may be able to “jumpstart” comatose brains, restoring communication along damaged neural pathways and bringing patients back into the waking world.
Here’s a look at coma resurrection therapy, the theory behind it, and what the research says about using psychedelics to wake up coma patients.
What is a Coma? Understanding Consciousness Disorders
A coma is a type of consciousness disorder. The patient appears to be sleeping and is not responsive to his or her environment.
Medically speaking, consciousness requires you to be both wakeful and aware. 1 Wakefulness is your ability to open your eyes and have basic reflexes like coughing and startling. Awareness is your ability to demonstrably respond to stimuli in your environment—for example, blinking when asked to, scratching an itch, or startling in response to a loud noise.
A coma is the most severe type of consciousness disorder, in which a patient shows no wakefulness and no awareness. The patient is alive, but is in a state akin to deep sleep and cannot be awakened. 2
Other consciousness disorders include vegetative states, in which a patient is wakeful—waking and sleeping, blinking, startling in response to loud noises, etc.—but shows no awareness; and minimally conscious states, in which a patient is only intermittently wakeful and aware.
What causes a coma?
Many things can lead to a coma. Common causes include physical head trauma, viral infection, stroke, tumor, epilepsy, and drug overdose, particularly with alcohol or anesthetic drugs like Propofol.
Neurodegenerative diseases can also cause a coma. Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other diseases that cause the brain to degrade over time can eventually result in a coma.
Brain activity during a coma
Brain activity is minimal during a coma. The following diagram shows brain damage in different types of consciousness disorders, compared to normal brain activity. You can see that as consciousness disorders get more severe, brain activity decreases 3:
Patients with consciousness disorders often have damaged neural pathways that struggle to generate brain activity, especially in parts of the brain that mediate consciousness. That’s where psychedelics may be able to help.
How Do Psychedelics Affect Brain Activity?
Psychedelic drugs increase the complexity of brain activity. They create new connections between brain pathways that wouldn’t normally interact, enhancing communication across the brain.
Here’s a comparison of brain network connectivity between a normal person (left) and a person on psilocybin (right) 4:
Psychedelic substances also increase brain activity in general. Here’s the visual input activity of two brains at rest. The top patient took a placebo; the bottom patient took LSD 5:
Finally, psychedelics increase neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change or build new pathways, or compensate for ones that aren’t functioning well. 6,7
Coma Resurrection Psychedelic Therapy
In theory, the increased connectivity and brain activity that psychedelics cause could be helpful for coma patients.
Comas are often the result of damaged neurons that stop communicating with one another, especially in the case of traumatic brain injury or stroke. As a result of the damage, the brain begins to shut down.
Increasing connectivity among brain regions that don’t usually interact could help turn those damaged brain regions back on, jumpstarting a coma patient’s consciousness. Increased neuroplasticity could also help cement the changes, keeping the patient conscious.
Right now, however, coma resurrection therapy is only a theory. Dr. Hyder Khoja, the molecular biologist who developed the idea of coma resurrection with psychedelics, also points out that researching the theory will be difficult. It’s hard to get informed consent from coma patients unless they’ve given their families legal agency to make medical decisions for them.
Nonetheless, Dr. Khoja intends to start animal research on coma resurrection therapy in the coming year. It’s an exciting future direction for psychedelic research—and if it proves successful, it could revolutionize coma treatment.
Frequently Asked Questions about Coma Resurrection Therapy
Here are a few frequently asked questions about comas, psychedelics, and coma resurrection therapy.
Can you awaken from a coma?
It is possible to awaken from a coma, although it’s rare. About 11-24% of people who go into a coma awaken (not including patients who are put into a medically induced coma). In patients who awaken, the prognosis is often poor. Many have brain damage or lasting consciousness abnormalities.
Do psychedelics improve cognition?
There’s limited research on whether or not psychedelics improve cognition. Psychedelics appear to increase neuroplasticity—your brain’s ability to change or adapt. Increased neuroplasticity may speed up learning, and could explain why psychedelics seem to improve depression and addiction. However, there are very few studies specifically on psychedelics and improved cognition.
Can psychedelics wake you up from a coma?
Coma resurrection therapy is the theory that psychedelics may increase brain activity in coma patients, “jumpstarting” their brains out of a comatose state. However, coma resurrection therapy is still in the early stages of research. It’s mostly theoretical. At this point, nothing conclusive can be said about psychedelics and comas.
Coma resurrection therapy is an exciting future direction for psychedelic research. If the therapy is successful, it could be a breakthrough treatment for coma patients and other people with consciousness disorders.
At this point, however, coma resurrection with psychedelics is only theoretical. There’s much more to study before anyone can make conclusive statements about psychedelics helping coma patients.
1. Disorders of consciousness – NHS. Accessed July 7, 2022. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/disorders-of-consciousness/
2. www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/coma. Accessed July 7, 2022. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/coma
3. Stender J, Mortensen KN, Thibaut A, et al. The Minimal Energetic Requirement of Sustained Awareness after Brain Injury. Curr Biol. 2016;26(11):1494-1499. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.04.024
4. Petri G, Expert P, Turkheimer F, et al. Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks. J R Soc Interface. 2014;11(101):20140873. doi:10.1098/rsif.2014.0873
5. Carhart-Harris RL, Muthukumaraswamy S, Roseman L, et al. Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2016;113(17):4853-4858. doi:10.1073/pnas.1518377113
6. de Vos CMH, Mason NL, Kuypers KPC. Psychedelics and neuroplasticity: A systematic review unraveling the biological underpinnings of psychedelics. Front Psychiatry. 2021;12:724606. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2021.724606
7. Aleksandrova LR, Phillips AG. Neuroplasticity as a convergent mechanism of ketamine and classical psychedelics. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2021;42(11):929-942. doi:10.1016/j.tips.2021.08.003