Scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research used nerve stimulation to restore consciousness in a man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years. The unfortunate person is still far from complete wakefulness, but his case shows that consciousness can be restored even after a much longer time than previously considered.
The vagus nerve’s role is to connect the brain to the gut, together with other parts of the body. Stimulation has sometimes been shown to help people with depression or epilepsy. It is also known to play a role in the process of waking up from sleep, and in keeping us alert. When she put these pieces all together, Dr. Angela Sirigu wondered whether stimulation could play a part in restoring consciousness to people with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome.
The longer an individual is in a vegetative state, the less possible is for them to recover, especially of their own accord. To be confident any responses were results of their intervention, Dr. Sirigu sought the patient who had gone the longest with no improvement. The chosen individual had had a car accident at the age of twenty and remained unresponsive fifteen years later.
After thirty days of stimulation of the vagus nerve, the man could turn his head on request. His eyes followed a moving object, and he spontaneously opened them wider when somebody’s head rapidly approached his face.
Sirigu reported in Current Biology that electroencephalogram (EEGs) also presented increased brain activity. Metabolic activity was discovered to have increased in the cortex and sub-cortex, showing a need for more fuel among brain cells.
Those tests led doctors to upgrade the person’s status from unresponsive to “minimal consciousness”. Sirigu concluded in the following statement: “Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished.”
A year without improvements in consciousness has been identified as the point where waking is not possible to occur, and after fifteen years, progress is rare indeed.
The vagus exerts its effect on the brain by inducing the hormone norepinephrine’s (also called noradrenaline) release. Norepinephrine also acts as a neurotransmitter, by enhancing information shared between brain regions. Sirigu and co-authors noted that, along with bringing hope to the loved ones of people who are in a state of limited consciousness, these observations also provide insight regarding where consciousness lies within the brain.
This article (Scientists Managed To Restore Consciousness In A Man Who Spent Half Of His Life In A Comatose State) was published by Thinking Humanity and it is re-posted here as a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.