Jul 3, 2006 (AP) Doctors have their first proof that a man who was barely conscious for nearly 20 years regained speech and movement because his brain spontaneously rewired itself by growing tiny new nerve connections to replace the ones sheared apart in a car crash.

Terry Wallis, 42, is thought to be the only person in the United States to recover so dramatically so long after a severe brain injury. He still needs help eating and cannot walk, but his speech continues to improve and he can count to 25 without interruption.

Wallis' sudden recovery happened three years ago, but doctors said the same cannot be hoped for people in a persistent vegetative state, such as Terry Schiavo, the Florida woman who died last year after a fierce right-to-die court battle. Nor do they know how to make others with less serious damage, like Wallis, recover.

"Right now these cases are like winning the lottery," said Dr. Ross Zafonte, rehabilitation chief at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who was not involved in the research. "I wouldn't want to overenthuse family members or folks who think now we have a cure for this."

Wallis has complete amnesia about the two decades he spent barely conscious, but remembers his life before the injury. "He still thinks Ronald Reagan is president," his father, Jerry, said in a statement, adding that until recently his son insisted he was 20 years old.

The research on Wallis, published Monday in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, was led by imaging expert Henning Voss and neurologist Dr. Nicholas Schiff at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City and included doctors at JFK Medical Center in Edison, N.J.

Wallis was 19 when he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him briefly in a coma and then in a minimally conscious state, in which he was awake but uncommunicative other than occasional nods and grunts, for more than 19 years.

"The nerve fibers from the cells were severed, but the cells themselves remained intact," unlike Schiavo, whose brain cells had died, said Dr. James Bernat, a neurologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, who reviewed the research.