A man who spent 15 years in a vegetative state has shed tears for the first time following an electronic implant.
The 35-year-old, left severely brain damaged by a car crash, had shown minimal signs he was aware of the outside world following the accident. But following an electrical stimulus to a nerve attached to his brain, he was able to smile and appeared to cry listening to a favourite song. For the first time, the unnamed patient was able to follow a moving object with his eyes and turn his head on request.It had been believed someone in a vegetative state for more than a year could not regain consciousness. Scientists are now seeking to use the same technique on other patients to see if it could work more widely.Dr Angela Sirigu, a co-author of the study published in the journal Current Biology, said: ‘Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished.’
Dr Sirigu, from the University of Lyon, added: ‘It is possible to improve a patient’s presence in the world.’An electric current of 1.5 Milliamperes maximum, was applied to the vagus nerve, with the patient monitored over 20 sessions.
The treatment, used already in epilepsy and depression, increased the activity in his brain which showed up in scans. After one month of vagal nerve stimulation, the patient’s attention and movements also significantly improved. He began responding to simple orders that had been impossible before, following a moving mirror with his eyes and turning his head. His mother, who gave permission for the surgery to implant the nerve stimulating device, reported an improved ability to stay awake when listening to his therapist reading a book.
The researchers also saw responses to a ‘threat’ which had been absent. From being minimally conscious previously, he now widened his eyes in shock if a researcher’s face appeared suddenly in front of him.
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