Man In a Vegetative State for 15 Years Stirs After Brain Stimulation—But He’s Not Awake Yet

Information sharing between brain cells before (top) and after (bottom) Image: Corazzol et al (2017)

Reviving unresponsive patients has long been a dream of humanity, and an oft-talked about part of the human condition. Maybe you’ve cried along with the movie Awakenings, or had long conversations with relatives about what happens should you or they end up in the same position.

But these conversations would be much different if you could restore consciousness, as a new paper claims to do… kind of. A French patient received a traumatic brain injury fifteen years ago, putting him into a vegetative state. After stimulating a part of the brain, scientists were seemingly able to restore some of the patients’ consciousness. But no, we’re not quite at Awakenings yet.

A vegetative state is not a coma. Instead, the brain-damaged patient is awake but unaware and conscious-less. A paper in BMC Medicine describes the condition as “only showing reflex movements without response to command.” Put very simply, researchers are pretty sure the condition has something to do with brain damage altering how electrical signals travel between the inner and outer sections of the brain, as well as around the outer layer. Some patients recover from vegetative states, but others don’t.

The scientists hypothesized that perhaps stimulating the vagus nerve, the longest nerve connected directly to the brain, would help rewire parts of the brain and allow for higher levels of consciousness. They implanted a stimulator to the nerve and applied a current, slowly ramping it up over a month. Afterwards, they noticed the patient had increased brain activity and observed him move from the vegetative to a minimally conscious state—as one paper describes, “a condition of severely altered consciousness in which minimal but definite behavioral evidence of self or environmental awareness is demonstrated.”

The patient’s behavior on the “Coma Recovery Scale” went from 5 to 10 (the maximum score is a 23), with the greatest increases in how his eyes reacted to stimuli. New Scientist reports that the patient showed an emotional response to music, moved his cheek in response to instructions to smile, and opened his eyes wide in response to the researchers moving in close.

This is obviously promising. As the authors conclude in the work published in Current Biology, “our study demonstrates the therapeutic potential of vagus nerve stimulation to modulate large-scale human brain…

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