Man in permanent vegetative state 'regains consciousness' after pioneering nerve implant

PET scans show increased brain activity in comatose patients after

Stimulating the vagus nerve with an electrical current has been shown to reduce epileptic seizures in patients not responsive to drug treatment. It's in charge of tasks like regulating heart rate, sweating and controlling muscles in the small intestine. For the first time, the unnamed patient was able to follow a moving object with his eyes and turn his head on request.

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.

This level of capability is regarded as a "partially conscious awareness" and it is not suspected that he will progress to being able to walk or talk, due to the extensive damage.

The report in the USA journal Current Biology is based on just one patient, but researchers say they plan to expand their work to others because of the improvements they have seen in the man, who was incapacitated by a auto accident 15 years ago.

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"Many of these patients may and will have been neglected, and passive euthanasia may happen often in a vegetative state", Niels Birbaumer of the University of Tübingen in Germany who was not involved in the study, tells The Guardian. Like any report about a single patient, he said, the new one is "provocative but not definitive", and further study is needed to see what kinds of patient it can help. The person in this state is actually possible to recognize the dead as to live independently, he cannot.

After 15 years in a vegetative state, a man is responding to vagus nerve stimulation therapy, a treatment now used to treat depression and epilepsy. Recordings of brain activity also showed the man produced brainwaves called a theta signal, which is a sign of limited consciousness that's not present in vegetative state patients.

CURRENT BIOLOGYThe delivery of gentle pulses of electricity to the vagus nerve of a man who'd spent 15 years in a persistent vegetative state appears to have awakened "minimal consciousness" in him, researchers report today (September 25) in Current Biology. Specialists consider this state to become permanent if it persists over a period of 12 months or longer, with the patient showing no signs of improvement.

The researchers were able to record major changes in the man's brain activity after the stimulation was performed, including signs pointing to increased electrical communication between different regions of the brain and increased activity in areas associated with awareness, movement, and sensation.

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"Clinicians for way too long have considered patients of unresponsive wakefulness as just waiting to die", Laureys said, per New Scientist. Research was led by Angela Sirigu and her colleagues from the Institute for Cognitive Sciences-Marc Jeannerod, Lyon, France. It also runs down both sides of the neck from the brain stem, across the chest and into the abdomen.

Sirigu and her colleagues reported their findings in the September 25 issue of Current Biology.

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.

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