A man who had been unable to talk or move for eight years miraculous woke up and asked for fast-food after being given a sleeping pill.
The 20-year-old, referred to only as Richard in medical journal Cortex, had suffered severe brain damage after choking on meat.
It left him with akinetic mutism, a rare mental state where people cannot speak, eat or move, but can still open their eyes.
Richard, now 37, regained full consciousness, recognised his family and asked to speak to his father after a dose of Zolpidem.
He even managed to get out of his wheelchair and walk with the help of doctors.
Doctors found sleeping pills could help people with certain types of brain damage regain their speech and movement – but only temporarily.
Student doctor Willemijn van Erp at Radboud University met Richard at a specialised nursing home.
She said: “It was clear that Richard saw and heard us, but because of his brain injury, he was barely able to respond to us.”
His family agreed to administer the medication after doctors said there was little they could do.
Within 20 minutes of taking it he asked the nurse how to operate his wheelchair and where he could find some fast-food.
Ms van Erp said: “Because Richard’s situation seemed hopeless, the family and I decided to administer this medication to Richard.
“Against all expectations, Zolpidem had remarkable effects.
“After taking the sleep pill, Richard started talking, wanted to call his father, and started recognising his brothers again.
“With some help, he could even get up from his wheelchair and walk short distances.”
Parts of Richard’s brain had shut down because they were being overloaded with sensory activity.
The sedative muted the unwanted brain activity for about two hours.
Dr Hisse Arnts at Amsterdam UMC said: “Richard’s brain scans show overactivity in certain parts of the brain.
“This overactivity causes noise and somehow shuts down the ‘good’ brain activity.
“We have discovered that administering this sleeping medication can suppress this unwanted brain overactivity, creating space for speech and movement.”
The restorative effects of the sleeping pill could be repeated once a day for around five days, before it started to wear off.
Dr Arnts said: “The time windows during which the patient was able to talk and move got narrower, and his abilities to move and speak during these time windows decreased.
“The use of multiple doses of zolpidem during a single day showed no improvement in his clinical condition and sometimes even caused sedation.”
A previous study showed the medication has a 5% success rate.
Akinetic mutism has been observed in people with brain tumours, certain types of bacterial infections and occasionally following an operation.
Patients may open their eyes and sometimes make sounds following powerful stimulation, making it different to paralysis or comas.
The researchers are now looking into a long-lasting solution, which could help Richard and other patients with this specific kind of brain injury stay fully conscious.