Medicine

Man regains consciousness after 15 years in vegetative state

Man regains consciousness after 15 years in vegetative state

By stimulating a nerve that stretches from the abdomen to the brain, French researchers have restored a significant measure of consciousness to a brain-damaged 35-year-old vehicle accident victim who had spent 15 years in a vegetative state. Meanwhile, a PET scan spotted an increase in metabolic activity in the brain's cortical and subcortical regions, which translates to improved neural functional connectivity.

"Brain plasticity and brain fix are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished", said study co-author Dr. Angela Sirigu from the University of Lyon. While it's the first success in a patient who'd spent 15 years in a vegetative state, it fits with other results that show even patients with long-standing, severe brain injury can be helped by treatment, he said. Now, thanks to an experimental technique, the 35-year-old has surprised doctors and loved ones by showing signs of regaining consciousness.

The study was led by Dr. Angela Sirigu of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives - Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, who, along with a team of researchers, discovered that the key to waking the man up lied in the vagus nerve.

His behavioral improvements appeared about a month after the device was switched on and persisted for the remaining five months of stimulation, Sirigu said.

Niels Birbaumer, a leading expert in the field of brain-computer interfaces to help restore communication in patients with neurological disorders, noted that euthanasia is very common among a significant number of vegetative patients when hopes vanish, as reported by The Guardian.

Experts who are not part of the research warn that the technique has only been applied to one patient only and the results can not extrapolate to all vegetative patients. And that distinguishes them from coma patients, whose eyes-closed unresponsiveness suggests no signs of wakefulness.

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French researchers say they restored some signs of consciousness in a brain-injured man who hadn't shown any awareness in 15 years.

Having already shown positive results in the treatment of epilepsy and depression, the stimulator was placed on the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the stomach.

So the investigators focused on "a patient with the worst outcome", meaning someone who had always been in a vegetative state with no signs of improvement, to eliminate the possibility of chance.

"It was particularly comforting to find that the changes we observed after VNS match perfectly with what is reported in human patients when their clinical state spontaneously shifts from vegetative to minimally conscious", Sirigu said.

Dr. James Bernat, an active emeritus professor of neurology and medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H., described the current case report as "interesting". But after researchers based at the French National Center for Scientific Research implanted a device in his chest to deliver gentle jolts of electricity through the vagus nerve to the brain, they began to see some hallmarks of consciousness: the man stayed awake for longer and could follow a mirror or person around the room with his eyes.

He added: "It is very important to take into account that the patient moved from a vegetative to a minimally conscious state". As Fins has told Newsweek in the past, being classified as vegetative versus minimally conscious can mean the difference between life and death. So, "it is hard to generalize from a single case".


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