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.
Current medical practices tend to look at people with consciousness disorders - those in a vegetative or comatose state - to be nearly impossible cases. The vagus nerve, which also reaches down into the abdomen, plays many roles including slowing the heartbeat and controlling muscles of the small intestine. He can now seemingly turn his head when asked to and follow an object with his eyes.
The researchers performed behavioural, electroencephalographic (EEG) and F-FDG PET measurements before and after surgical implantation of a vagus nerve stimulator into the patient's chest.
Stroke, and various injuries to the head often enter a person into a state that doctors call "brain death", when the body of the patient still live if to support him with artificial respiration and output of waste, but the brain is not functioning.
The patient selected for this study was incapacitated by a vehicle accident 15 years ago, and showed no signs of improvement in the past so many years.
However, many patients live this way for decades, before they die or their relatives take the decision to disconnect people from life support systems.
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The 35-year-old was in a state of "unresponsive wakefulness" and although he was capable of some involuntary movements, he had no awareness or self or his environment, and this had not improved over time.
Because the vagus nerve connects so many critical brain areas thought to be heavily involved in consciousness, the researchers reckoned this would be a good place to start in order to help the man regain some of his cognitive functions.
The man, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a auto crash at 20, showed signs of a "minimally conscious" state after receiving an experimental form of low-intensity nerve stimulation, Science magazine reported on Monday. The treatment was also seen to increase the brain's functional connectivity. After one month of stimulation, the patient's attention, movements and brain activity significantly improved.
The new findings indicate that it is indeed possible for some patients to make a partial recovery.
Sirigu and her team stimulated the nerve by implanting a device underneath the skin in his chest, similar to a pacemaker, and sending electrical currents along the nerve to the brain stem.
Sirigu is an author of a study released Monday by the journal Current Biology. "The brain retains the ability to form new connections and fix itself, even in such a critical situation", said Angela Sirigu from the Institute of cognitive Sciences in Lyon (France). He also appeared more alert and was able to stay awake when listening to his therapist read a book.
In the end, Sirigu said that her team was not, in fact, surprised by the encouraging results, based on evidence of the impact of VNS in prior animal research.