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Man Wakes Up from Coma After 15 Years Thanks To Nerve Stimulation

S u m m a r y :
Through vagus nerve stimulation, a man who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years, has woken up. The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

A Miracle After 15 Years of Sleep

A 35-year-old man from France was locked in a vegetative state in the aftermath of a car accident. It would take no less than a miracle to restore his consciousness, right? Well, now, 15 years of sleep later, he has woken up thanks to nerve stimulation. This was made possible through the implantation of a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) into his chest, an intervention performed by a team of neurosurgeons; it is to be noted that VNS is already used for epilepsy and depression.

Stimulating the Vagus Nerve

The new findings challenge the long-held belief that there is no real hope for those in vegetative states—whereby the patient undergoes disorders of consciousness—lasting for over a year. The researchers behind the study, led by Angela Sirigu, proved this assumption wrong by testing the ability of VNS to trigger back consciousness. This method stimulates the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve through which the brain and other body parts like the gut are connected; it is known to play key roles in waking, alertness, and similar functions. Sirigu says that its stimulation improves “a patient’s presence in the world.”

Sirigu and her colleagues wanted to use VNS on a patient from a difficult case to ascertain that any positive results would be caused by VNS itself and not by chance; this is why they chose the man who had been in a vegetative state for more than ten years whereby he would stay in a condition of minimal consciousness.

VNS led to increased metabolism in brain regions depicted above. Photo credits: Corazzol et al.

Improvements in Brain Activity & Responses

After a month of nerve stimulation, the attention, movement, and brain activity of the patient displayed significant improvement. He could even respond to requests like following an object with his eyes, and moving his head when asked—something that had remained impossible so far. Moreover, he could stay awake while listening to his therapist reading to him.

Another interesting improvement is the man’s response to threat. For instance, when someone’s head would approach his face, he would open his eyes wide, a reaction of surprise.

When Sirigu and her team investigated his brain activity, they observed a number of improvements:

  1. Increased signals involved in movement, sensation, and awareness.
  2. Boosted brain functional connectivity.
  3. Enhanced metabolic activity in brain regions.

Hope For Severe Cases

The authors argue that the right procedure has the ability to generate changes in consciousness even in the most difficult cases.

“Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished,” says Sirigu.

Now, the aim of the team is to confirm the therapeutic nature of VNS on other patients of similar conditions.

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