Brain Damage from Drowning Can Be Reversed—and This Little Girl Is Proof

Updated: Jul. 23, 2017

This is a world's first!

Some call it a miracle; others consider it the result of hard work and science. Regardless, it’s definitely the world’s first: Scientists have reversed the brain damage in a toddler that drowned in a pool.

In February 2016, two-year-old Eden Carlson was found in a family swimming pool, where she had been submerged in 40 degree Fahrenheit water for 15 minutes before somebody found her. She had navigated through a baby gate when she fell in, Newsweek reports. Although Eden was resuscitated, her heart did not beat on its own for two hours. She ended up staying in the hospital for over one month—immobile, squirming, and shaking her head.

Eden’s outlook appeared grim; MRI scans revealed significant injury to her brain’s gray matter, along with loss of its white and gray matter. But researchers at the LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine and the University of North Dakota School of Medicine refused to give up. Hoping for the best, they began treating the toddler with two types of oxygen therapy. (Discover even more stunning medical miracles that doctors can’t explain.)

For the first 55 days after the accident, doctors gave Eden normobaric oxygen therapy, where she received levels of oxygen matching those at sea level, for 45 minutes per day. Afterward, they treated her with hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) therapy for five 45-minute sessions per week, for four weeks. HBOT therapy supplies patients with pure, pressurized oxygen at levels higher than that of the atmosphere while they lay a tubular chamber.

As the treatments progressed, so did Eden’s behavior. The first therapy treatment made her more alert, laughing and moving her arms and hands instead of squirming. And by the end of the HBOT sessions, Eden was practically back to her normal self; she could walk, and her speech and cognitive skills had returned.

One month after the last HBOT session, a final MRI scan confirmed everyone’s wildest hopes: Eden’s brain damage was almost completely reversed. Researchers believe that thanks to the combination of the oxygen therapy and Eden’s young, developing brain, genes that promote cell survival and reduce inflammation were activated, helping the brain to recover. (Did you know oxygen therapy can treat victims of carbon monoxide poisoning, too?) The case report has been published in the journal Medical Gas Research.

“The startling regrowth of tissue in this case occurred because we were able to intervene early in a growing child, before long-term tissue degeneration,” Dr. Paul Harch, who treated Eden, said in a statement. “Such low-risk medical treatment may have a profound effect on recovery of function in similar patients who are neurologically devastated by drowning.”

Will oxygen become a possible treatment for future drowning patients? After this amazing (and miraculous!) discovery, the researchers certainly hope so.

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