A patient who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years has showed some consciousness, doctors report.
The 35-year-old patient in France was treated with an experimental therapy that had doctors implanting a nerve stimulator in his chest. After a month, the patient could respond to simple instructions, could turn his head and follow an object with his eyes, the BBC reports. The patient’s mother likewise said that the man could stay awake longer when listening to his therapist read a book.
The results are exciting, experts say, but the process needs plenty of further research and repeated success. The technique, called vagal nerve stimulation (VNS), may not be as effective in patients with other patterns of brain damage.
However, Angela Sirigu of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon pointed out that they had already tried a challenging patient.
The vagus nerve connects the brain to other parts of the body and controls automatic or subconscious actions, such as wakefulness and staying alert.
The patient’s brain scans reflected the improvement, and he also began responding to perceived “threats.” When a doctor’s head approached his face, for example, his eyes opened wide in surprise.
Sirigu said, “Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished. After this case report, we should consider testing larger populations of patients.” She added,
This treatment can be important for minimally conscious patients by giving them more chances to communicate with the external world.
Others say to proceed with caution. Dr. Vladimir Litvak, from The Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging at University College London’s Institute of Neurology, said, “This might be an interesting new lead, but I would suggest to be cautious about these results until they are reproduced in more patients.” He further clarified, “It is hard to know based on a single case how likely this treatment is to work in the general patient population.”
The study was published in Current Biology.