Consciousness sparked in man after 15 years in vegetative state

A close-up of an eye

The reignited activity bumped his clinical status from vegetative to minimally conscious-an improvement, but still a severely disabled condition. The vagus nerve, which also reaches down into the abdomen, plays many roles including slowing the heartbeat and controlling muscles of the small intestine. When doctors requested he turn his head one side or the other, the patient obeyed.

This, however, changed shortly after a neurosurgeon implanted a device in the man's chest that stimulates the vagus nerve, according to the study.

The 35-year-old, left severely brain damaged by a vehicle crash, had shown minimal signs he was aware of the outside world following the accident.

It's generally believed that patients who are in a vegetative state more than a year after experiencing severe brain trauma won't regain consciousness ever again.

"Many of these patients may and will have been neglected, and passive euthanasia may happen often in a vegetative state", Niels Birbaumer of the University of Tübingen in Germany who was not involved in the study, tells The Guardian. A breakthrough new study, however, suggests that this may no longer be the case.

The 35-year-old was in a state of "unresponsive wakefulness" and although he was capable of some involuntary movements, he had no awareness or self or his environment, and this had not improved over time.

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After the first month of the procedure, an electroencephalogram (EEG) brain scan "revealed a significant increase in theta band (4-7 Hz) power", which is the brain wave associated with daydreaming and ideation. After a month of stimulation, the patient's mother reported that his ability to stay awake was improved by listening to his therapist reading a book. This is a sort of neural hub that connects various key brain areas including the thalamus (relays sensory impulses from receptors in various parts of the body to the cerebral cortex), amygdala (paramount in our perception of fear and other emotions), and the hippocampus (where memories are stored and retrieved). "Brain plasticity and brain fix is possible even when hope seems to have disappeared", said Angela Sirigu, a researcher at the Institute of cognitive science.

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 auto accident victim who had spent 15 years in a vegetative state.

"Investigators. should be more cautious not to imply false expectation in family members that further improvement beyond visual pursuit and occasional facial response is guaranteed", said Buzsaki.

The result "totally makes sense to me", said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City who did not participate in the research.

Doctors at a Canadian intensive care unit discovered that one person had persistent brain activity after they turned off their life support machine, but three others did not. The results, published today in the journal Current Biology, was compiled by researchers led by Angela Sirigu from the ISC Marc Jeannerod.

The study team is planning on conducting a larger scale trial.

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