Caused by car crashes, falls, or assaults, every year 1.7 million Americans suffer a traumatic brain injury. Now something approved decades ago, for a much different ailment, is helping speed recovery for some.

Life for Kim and her husband John, changed in an instant. For unknown reasons, Kim suffered a brain hemorrhage when she awoke from surgery she was in a minimally conscious state.

"She could squeeze your finger, but wasn't communicative. She would say typically one word or up to three word answers for things and would tend not to speak at all unless spoken to," John said..

Dr. Joseph Giacino is the director of rehabilitation neuropsychology and associate professor of the department of PM&R at Harvard Medical School Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.  There is no standard treatment for severe brain injuries, but Giacino hopes his research helps change that.

"This is the first trial to demonstrate that we can indeed influence the course of recovery from severe traumatic brain injury," he explained.

It focuses on amantadine, a common drug for Parkinson's that was originally used to treat respiratory infections caused by the flu. In the trial, brain injury patients were either given amantadine or a placebo for four weeks. At four weeks the flu drug group improved by one point over the placebo group on the disability scale.

"Restoring you know, human interaction between family to family, between a patient and a health care team," Giacino said. "I think that's a very significant step forward."

One that paves the way to testing amantadine on more patients like Kim. She's been on the drug for six weeks.

"it has kept all of our hopes for her alive," John said.

"I think it's going very well," Kim said.

Those in the study who received amantadine recovered the ability to answer yes and no questions and consistently follow commands within four weeks which was faster than participants taking the placebo. Two weeks after treatment stopped, the level of recovery in both groups was about the same.