A 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years after a car accident has shown signs of consciousness after neurosurgeons implanted a nerve stimulator into his chest.
The findings, reported this week in the journal Current Biology, suggest that “vagus nerve stimulation” (VNS)—a treatment already in use for epilepsy and depression—can help to restore consciousness even after many years in a vegetative state.
The researchers, based in France, provided the unidentified patient with one month of vagal nerve stimulation. According to their study, the patient's attention, movements and brain activity significantly improved following ongoing stimulation. The man began responding to simple orders that had been impossible before. For example, he could follow an object with his eyes and turn his head upon request. His mother reported an improved ability to stay awake when listening to his therapist reading a book.
After stimulation, the researchers also observed responses to "threat" that had been absent. For instance, when the examiner's head suddenly approached the patient's face, he reacted with surprise by opening his eyes wide.
"Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished”, Angela Sirigu, a researcher at Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon and co-author on the study, told reporters.
Bioethicists are yet to comment on the research, though there would seem to be several ethical issues surrounding bringing patients back to consciousness.
In addition to this study, several stories of comatose patients regaining consciousness have received media attention in recent weeks. One widely reported case involved a 47-year-old Arizona woman who regained consciousness following the withdrawal of life-support; she had been in a coma for several days after falling unconscious due to blood clots in her leg. Another case involved a 61-year-old British man who woke up just hours before life support was to be switched off. The man had been in a coma for a number of weeks following a blood clot and intracranial bleeding.
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