Scientists Have Resurrected A Man’s Consciousness After He Spent The Last 15 Years In A Vegetative State

Experts at the French National Center for Scientific Research have used nerve stimulation as a method to resurrect a man’s consciousness.

He has been stuck in an unresponsive state for nearly half his existence.

The poor soul is still far from regaining his normal state, but his story is proof that consciousness can be resurrected after a much longer time than scientists have thought possible.

The vagus nerve connects the brain to the gut, as well as other organs. Stimulation has previously shown to benefit people with conditions such as depression or epilepsy. In addition, it has a key function of waking us from sleep, as well as keeping us alert. Being aware of this, Dr. Angela Sirigu started investigating whether it could play a function in reviving consciousness in people with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome.

The longer someone spends in a vegetative state, the less likely they are to make a recovery, especially if they are not being aided by doctors.

To ensure any responses were caused by their intervention, Dr. Sirigu decided to seek out the patient that had spent the longest without getting better.

The said person fell victim to a car accident at 20 years of age and was in a vegetative state for 15 years in a row.

After one month of stimulation of the vagus nerve with a current of around one milliamp, the patient was able to turn his head on his own when asked to. He was also able to follow a moving object with his eyes and he seemed to stay awake for longer periods of time when read to. In addition, he immediately opened his eyes wider when another person’s head came near his face with a quick movement.

Dr. Sirigu noted in Current Biology that the electroencephalogram (EEGs) also showed boosted brain activity, including in the waves used to determine the differences between states of consciousness. Activity in the area of metabolism was seen to have increased in the cortex and sub-cortex part of the brain, pointing to a need for extra fuel among brain cells.

Image: Corazzol et al./Eurekalert.com

The research led medical experts to upgrade the man’s status from unresponsive to “minimal consciousness”, and Dr. Sirigu concluded the following:

“Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished.”

One year without betterment when it comes to consciousness has been marked as the point where a waking state is unlikely to be achieved, and after 15 years, progress is extremely rare.

The vagus influences the brain by triggering norepinephrine release (a hormone also known as noradrenaline), which plays the role of a neurotransmitter and enhances information sharing between different regions of the brain. According to Dr. Sirigu and colleagues, on top of bringing hope to the families of those who are in vegetative states, their observations provide clues into where consciousness lies within the human brain.

The team says their work points at the parietal cortex as being “a major player in guiding the expansion of neural activity across brain regions”, and hopefully even more significant findings in the area will be made in the near future.

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