Shock therapy partially wakes man out of 15-year-old vegetative state

Brain scan

The vagus nerve connects the brain to many other parts of the body, including the gut.

The reignited activity bumped his clinical status from vegetative to minimally conscious-an improvement, but still a severely disabled condition. It's in charge of tasks like regulating heart rate, sweating and controlling muscles in the small intestine. He was able to respond to simple commands, like following an object with his eyes or turning his head when asked.

"Our study demonstrates the therapeutic potential of vagus nerve stimulation to modulate large-scale human brain activity and alleviate disorders of consciousness", the researchers, led by neurologist Angela Sirigu of Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, conclude. This usually depends on the degree of damage in the brain. To ensure that any improvements couldn't be explained by chance, they deliberately chose a hard case: a 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for more than a decade with no sign of improvement.

The patient went from what had been a vegetative state to a substantially more responsive "minimally conscious" state, she said.

A new study suggests that a low-intensity stimulation of the brain may help people regain consciousness after having suffered a brain injury.

A vegetative state is when a person is awake but is showing no signs of awareness.

Noting that vagus nerve stimulation has always been used as a treatment for both epilepsy and depression, the French team made a decision to see whether it might also be deployed to help bring a patient out of a vegetative state into a minimally conscious state.

After the first month of the procedure, an electroencephalogram (EEG) brain scan "revealed a significant increase in theta band (4-7 Hz) power", which is the brain wave associated with daydreaming and ideation.

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The results show "it is possible to improve a patient's presence in the world", she added in a statement.

The brain activity of the patient before (top) and after nerve stimulation.

By stimulating a nerve that stretches from the abdomen to the brain, French researchers have restored a significant measure of consciousness to a brain-damaged 35-year-old auto accident victim who had spent 15 years in a vegetative state.

"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. They implanted a stimulator to the nerve and applied a current, slowly ramping it up over a month.

During the treatment, the man also shed tears and smiled while listening to a favorite song by French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman. "Brain plasticity and brain fix are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished", said corresponding author Angela Sirigu, from Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod.

The results are published today in the journal Current Biology.

Still, Hae said, if the French research team can replicate their outcomes in a larger study, the implications would be profound.

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