Man Was in Vegetative State for 15 Years. Then They Tried Something New

Frenchman shows signs of awareness after nerve stimulation
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 26, 2017 5:23 AM CDT
Updated Oct 1, 2017 3:45 PM CDT
New Technique Restored Signs of Awareness in Vegetative Patient
This image provided by the CNRS Marc Jeannerod Institute of Cognitive Science in Lyon, France, shows brain activity in a patient before, top row, and after vagus nerve stimulation.   (CNRS Marc Jeannerod Institute of Cognitive Science, Lyon, France via AP)

A 35-year-old Frenchman who had been in a vegetative state since he was 20 showed signs of consciousness after a treatment that researchers say upends the idea that there is no chance of a patient recovering after being in a persistent vegetative state for more than a year. Researchers say the patient, who suffered severe brain injuries in a car accident, began tracking objects with his eyes, turning his head toward people speaking to him, and even responding to simple requests after a vagus nerve stimulator was implanted in his chest, the Guardian reports. The vagus nerve runs to the brain stem from other parts of the body and it is already stimulated to treat disorders including epilepsy.

Neuroscientist Angela Sirigu, one of the authors of a study published Monday in Current Biology, says the patient also moved his head and shed tears when a favorite song was played, the AP reports. She tells CNN that vagus nerve activity is "important for arousal, alertness and the fight-or-flight response." She says the team chose somebody who had been in a vegetative state for such a long time to show that the signs of consciousness "could not be the result of chance." She says she now plans a larger study to look at ways the new technique can help patients in vegetative states, who number around 50,000 in the US alone. (An earlier study found signs of "hidden awareness" in vegetative patients.)

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