Consciousness Was Brought Back To A Man After 15 Years In A Vegetative State
For the very first time, consciousness was brought back to a person who’s been in a vegetative state for over 15 years due to a brain injury. After the procedure, the man regained his consciousness and showed significant signs of attention and movement improvements after only a month. This could well be a new form of treatment for people with similar conditions.
Now, to make things clear, a vegetative state is unlike a coma. A coma is a situation in which the patient is in a state of sleep but is completely unresponsive. In a vegetative state, a person is awake but shows no signs of cognitive function or awareness – even though they have basic reflexes, like blinking, when startled.
In some rare cases, people can transition from a vegetative state to a minimally conscious state, where they have a small amount of awareness of their surroundings. But if a person has been in vegetative state for more than one year, they are believed to remain in that state indefinitely – with minute chances of ever recovering.
Anyway, the man in question is a 35-year-old who went through a terrible car accident when he was 20 and has remained in one such vegetative state for the past 15 years.
What the medical team did to bring him back was to implant a device that stimulated his vagus nerve – which is a sort of bottleneck and an important nerve that connects the brain to the rest of the body. These devices, known as vagus nerve stimulators (VNS), or sometimes called “pacemakers for the brain” are already in use in treating epileptic seizures.
After one month of treatment and experimentation with the implant, the man began to show signs of consciousness. According to the doctors, the patient transitioned from a vegetative to a minimally conscious state for the first time in 15 years.
“The man began responding to simple orders that had been impossible before. For example, he could follow an object with his eyes and turn his head upon request,” the team reports in a press statement.
“His mother reported an improved ability to stay awake when listening to his therapist reading a book.”
Besides the obvious behavioural improvements, EEG and PET scans confirmed that parts of the brain showed a consistent activity – which are markers of consciousness. This new development now proves that spending more than 12 months in a vegetative state does not make the condition irreversible.
“Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished,” says lead researcher Angela Sirigu from the Cognitive Neuroscience Centre in France.
This experimental treatment is still in its early stages of development and one case study doesn’t actually prove its effectiveness. This, of course, doesn’t dismiss it either and it shows great promise. The research team is now looking to expand on the trail – looking at ways to use it as a therapy for other such patients.