Reviving unresponsive patients is the dream of many clinicians. The movie Awakenings is probably as sad as this human condition.
However, restoring consciousness may change the clinic history, according to a newspaper. A French man received a terrible brain injury that put him in vegetative state for 15 years. But, scientists have stimulated his brain and he’s recovered some of his consciousness. But he’s not awake yet.
Many people think that a vegetative state is a coma and they are wrong. A vegetative state is when the patient is awake but is totally conscious-less or unaware. As per a description published by a paper called BMC Medicine, in this condition patients are able to show reflex but unable to respond to command. In a few words, scientist have claimed that the vegetative state is associated with brain damage and the way electrical signals work in the inner and outer part of the brain. For this reason, only a few patients can recover from this condition.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve that is connected to the brain. Experts believe that perhaps stimulating this nerve would help revive sections of the brain allowing for better levels of consciousness. They have implanted a stimulator to the vagus nerve and applied a current for 30 days. They realized that the patient has had some brain activity and has slowly gotten out of his vegetative state. The paper that published this news in France described the following:
“A condition of severely altered consciousness in which minimal but definite behavioral evidence of self or environmental awareness is demonstrated.”
The patient’s behavior improved a lot going from 5 to 10 on a scale of 23. His eyes have begun to react to stimuli. New Scientist reported that he has even responded to music, moved his cheek a little bit, smiled, and once opened his eyes when he heard the researchers coming close.
Investigators say that this is such a breakthrough. They think that this study demonstrates that stimulating the vagus nerve helps modulate human brain activity and alleviates disorders that cause unconsciousness.
James L. Bernat, a neurology professor at Dartmond states that these results are promising and added that the choice of patient was important. It was a right decision to have chosen a patient that has been in such state for so many years, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to observe the patient getting better on his own. Additionally, he said that every patient in this condition is a different case, which might lead to assume that vagus nerve stimulation wouldn’t be beneficial for all of them.
Other scientists agree with Bernat’s sentiment. They believe that vagus nerve stimulation shouldn’t be counted as a general treatment because its effectiveness depends on the severity of the damage brain. According to Buzsaki, a professor at New York University, these are very good findings considering that vagus stimulation is not a complex method. This part of the brain can basically be stimulated percutaneously. He recommends testing this method in patients that haven’t undergone brain surgery yet.
Yet, Buzsaki believes that the news paper didn’t report many important details. According to this scientist, the patient remains unconscious, not awake. However, stimulation resulted in body motility but it doesn’t mean that he’s awake enough to say “Hey, I’m here” or “Where the hell am I”. The patient is clearly unable to say a word yet.
To the scientists, this study has been promising because it has provided tantalizing results. But, it’s also a single case study, a one-time thing maybe. Not as incredible as some news papers report.
Buzsaki says that investigators should be careful not to imply false expectation by telling his family members that there will be further improvement beyond this occasional facial response but that this is important progress in the health field.