Nerve Stimulation Raises Awareness in 15-Year Coma Patient

Nerve Stimulation Raises Awareness in 15-Year Coma Patient

Nerve Stimulation Raises Awareness in 15-Year Coma Patient

While the story is inspirational, it is important to bear in mind the statistical significance; many more patients need to be treated with vagus nerve stimulation before it can be described as a breakthrough. The researchers tested their theory by helping bring back to minimal consciousness a man that spent the past fifteen years in a vegetative state. The vagus nerve serves many roles in the anatomy: it controls the slowing of the heartbeat and the muscles of the small intestine. For example, he was able to follow an object with his gaze or turn his head when asked.

The researchers found in the abdominal cavity of the patient, special pacemaker, which was connected to one of the endings of the vagus nerve and permanently sent him a special set of pulses, frequency and power of which has changed over time. The patient still isn't awake - and might never be, considering the brain damage - but his response is far more than his family or doctors could ever hope given the situation.

They looked to a patient who had been lying in a vegetative state for more than a decade with no sign of improvement. The brain activity does not represent full consciousness; more like the trance you fall into when you are driving on a particularly straight stretch of highway, but it is a marked improvement from an unresponsive vegetative state. Sirigu said that she and her team designed the experiment after reading about animal studies that suggest there may be a link between the nerve's stimulation and consciousness. Brain scans also show heightened activity in the various areas of the cortex following stimulation.

A team of researchers and clinicians from the Institut des Sciences Cognitives (ISC) Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France restored signs of consciousness to a 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years through a method called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS).

In order to reach the findings, the researchers chose to test the ability of vagus nerve stimulation to restore consciousness in a patient in a vegetative state.

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"At the start of the study, before any stimulation, the patient scored 6/23 (on a 0 to 23 scale assessing the level of consciousness)", said Dr. Elizabeth Coulthard, Consultant Senior Lecturer in Dementia Neurology at the University of Bristol, who was not involved with the new research.

In addition to helping patients, the findings will also advance understanding of "this fascinating capacity of our mind to produce conscious experience", Sirigu said. The device was switched on one month after implantation as a current was passed through it. "Brain plasticity and brain fix are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished". 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).

According to the publication, in Current Biology, the tomographies confirmed this improvement.

Sirigu said she's planning a large study involving several medical centers.

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