PATIENT IN VEGETATIVE STATE FOR 15 YEARS SHOWS SIGNS OF CONSCIOUSNESS AFTER VNS

In a world first, a man who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years has shown signs of consciousness after vagal nerve stimulation.

The discovery challenges the widely-accepted view that after 12-months in PVS, there is little to no prospect of a patient’s recovery.

The vagus nerve connects the brain to many of the vital organs and is directly linked to the two regions known to be partially responsible for alertness and consciousness.

The procedure involved placing an implant around the vagus nerve of the patient in surgery. After a month of vagal nerve stimulation, the patient could track objects with his eyes, stay awake whilst being read a story and was visibly surprised when an examiner moved her face close to the patient’s. Most impressive was his ability to respond to simple requests such as turning his head when asked.

The work, led by Angela Sirigu at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod, showed increased electrical communication between brain regions and considerably more activity in regions linked to movement, sensation and awareness.

The team at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod are hopeful that such a procedure may provoke more substantial improvements in patients with less serious brain injuries. Some people who have suffered from brain injuries may still have their cortex intact but have brain stem injuries that have led to limited awareness or consciousness.    

Speaking on the discovery, Damian Cruse, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham, described it as ‘pretty exciting’ before adding:

‘If you can just push the patient over the threshold so they can start responding to external stimulation you can maybe help them follow speech therapy and get them to a level where they can start to communicate.’

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