Nerve stimulation restores patient consciousness

Researchers Restore Consciousness in Man After 15 Years in a Vegetative State

Researchers Restore Consciousness in Man After 15 Years in a Vegetative State

Scientists are now seeking to use the same technique on other patients to see if it could work more widely.

A man has opened his eyes after 15 years spent in a vegetative state, thanks to a potential new treatment that administers non-invasive electrical zaps to the brain. The vagus nerve serves many roles in the anatomy: it controls the slowing of the heartbeat and the muscles of the small intestine. He regained the ability to follow an object with his eyes and turn his head when asked to.

The researchers found in the abdominal cavity of the patient, special pacemaker, which was connected to one of the endings of the vagus nerve and permanently sent him a special set of pulses, frequency and power of which has changed over time. This usually depends on the degree of damage in the brain.

"We choose a patient who was in a vegetative state [for] 15 years, showing no sign of change since his vehicle accident", neuroscientist and study co-author Dr. Angela Sirigu said in an email.

However, many patients live this way for decades, before they die or their relatives take the decision to disconnect people from life support systems.

Steven Laureys, who has worked extensively with people with impaired consciousness, at the University of Liege in Belgium, told New Scientist magazine that news of the study is encouraging. Martin Pistorius, from South Africa, was in a vegetative state for 12 years, Terry Wallis of Arkansas woke from a 19-year coma in 2003 and Jan Grzebski, from Poland, woke from his 19-year coma in 2006. Doctors and researchers determined that the key to helping the man regain consciousness lay in his vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve, which runs through the abdomen, chest, neck and brain. Rather, he was classified as having moved from a vegetative state to a "state of minimal consciousness", according to brain scans that showed improvements in areas of the brain involved in movement, sensation and awareness. The tears might have been the result of the nerve stimulation, said Angela Sirigu of the Marc Jeannerod Institute of Cognitive Science in Lyon, France, which is affiliated with the National Center for Scientific Research.

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Researchers say that a nerve stimulation technique may have raised the level of consciousness in a 35-year-old man who has been in a vegetative state for years. Just one month later he showed signs of movement, attention and increased brain activity.

In addition to helping patients, the findings will also advance understanding of "this fascinating capacity of our mind to produce conscious experience", Sirigu said.

The researchers also saw responses to a "threat" which had been absent. He stayed awake when listening to his therapist read a book.

Sirigu and her team stimulated the nerve by implanting a device underneath the skin in his chest, similar to a pacemaker, and sending electrical currents along the nerve to the brain stem.

According to the publication, in Current Biology, the tomographies confirmed this improvement.

Still, Hae said, if the French research team can replicate their outcomes in a larger study, the implications would be profound.

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