MIRAMAR - Charlene was once a vivacious woman looking for her dream job after graduating from the University of Miami.
Now she is helpless as a newborn and requires round-the-clock care.
The 24-year-old woman was diagnosed two years ago with the human variant of mad cow disease, which she contracted when she lived in Great Britain.
Doctors gave her months to live, but she surpassed their expectations and is improving with a new form of oxygen treatment, her doctors and family said.
After 196 sessions in a hyperbaric chamber since November 2002, Charlene has gained 6 pounds and responds to her name by moaning.
Charlene, whose last name isn't released because her family requests anonymity, lived with her family in London until she was 13. After earning her business management degree in Miami, she noticed the first symptoms: irritability, forgetfulness and uncharacteristic outbursts of anger.
Her parents encouraged her to return to London for a vacation, but there her symptoms worsened and doctors there gave her the diagnosis: Charlene had contracted variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a brain-wasting illness known as mad cow disease.
Charlene is among the 129 reported cases of mad cow disease in the United Kingdom from October 1996 to November 2002, according to the World Health Organization. The disease can remain dormant for five to 20 years and often affects people in their 20s.
Dr. Richard Neubauer, internist who heads Ocean Hyperbaric Center in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, saw a media report about Charlene and contacted the family about his unconventional treatment. The treatment centers on reawakening portions of the brain with high-pressure doses of oxygen, possibly igniting dormant brain cells.
Neubauer characterizes his work on Charlene as "investigative" and the treatment has not been proven effective for treating mad cow or any other degenerative neurological disease.
"As far as I know, there's neither a rationale nor any human studies nor even any animal studies that suggest hyperbaric medicine would work," said Dr. Richard Moon, medical director of the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology at the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina.
But her family hopes the treatments will bring a full recovery.
"I have no doubt she will recover," said her father, Patrick.