CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ The severely brain-damaged policeman who astonished doctors and family by talking for the first time in 7 1/2 years may speak again, although the probability is a mystery.

``I have honest hopes that he may speak again,'' neurologist Bruce Kaplan said Monday. ``I do not have honest hopes he will get beyond severe neurological disability.''

Gary Dockery, 42, was shot in the head in 1988 by a drunken man while on duty. Since then, he has occasionally communicated by blinking his eyes or nodding his head, primarily to his family.

He cannot chew, swallow or speak. He is paralyzed completely on his right side, partially on his left.

Dockery amazed family and doctors by suddenly speaking coherently over an 18-hour period Feb. 12, a day after he was hospitalized for life-threatening pneumonia.

Since surgery last Thursday to remove fluid from his lungs, he has communicated by opening and moving his eyes, squeezing hands, nodding to answer questions and moving his leg and arm upon command.

``He does none of this consistently,'' Kaplan said. ``But I am quite convinced his level of comprehension of what was being said to him was real.''

Dockery's mother, Corena Thompson, said her son spoke to her over the weekend, but his doctor, James Folkening, called it a ``hopeful interpretation.

Mrs. Thompson told the Christian Broadcasting Network she asked her son if he would like to go camping with an aunt after he recovered from surgery. ``And he said, `Yep,''' Mrs. Thompson said.

Unlikely, Folkening said: ``This may have been hopeful interpretation on her part of sound that would not be uncharacteristic for him to produce.''

Folkening said he asked Kaplan to review the case so more precise information could be given to the public. The hospital has received dozens of calls from researchers, neurologists and families around the world wanting to know more about the case and what it means to similar patients.

Kaplan said Dockery's case is isolated and remarkable.

``I'm not aware of anything precisely like it,'' he said. ``It is extremely fascinating.''

Kaplan said an accurate description for Dockery's state prior to his surgery was severe neurological disability.

Coma patients either die within two to four weeks or they slip into another state of consciousness, he said. Patients in a vegetative state have sleep patterns and periods of wakefulness, but no real interaction with their environment.

Dockery's ability to occasionally communicate non-verbally and understand conversation categorizes him as severely disabled neurologically rather than in a sleep-like state, Kaplan said.

Kaplan said neurological testing will be conducted once Dockery is moved from the intensive care unit, where he is in stable condition.

``The fact that he has spoken implies to me that there are connections in the brain that perhaps will turn on again either spontaneously or under some influences we have not yet been able to ascertain,'' Kaplan said.

``We'll get him to talk again or he will get himself to talk again.''