Car crash victim reportedly shows signs of life after 15-year coma

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  • Brain images pre-VNS are seen on the left, and post-procedure on the right. next Image 1 of 2

    Brain images pre-VNS are seen on the left, and post-procedure on the right. (SWNS)

  • Brain images pre-VNS are seen on the left, and post-procedure on the right. prev Image 2 of 2

    Brain images pre-VNS are seen on the left, and post-procedure on the right. (SWNS)

A car crash victim left in a coma for 15 years has shown signs of life after a nerve simulator was implanted into his chest by neurosurgeons.
Doctors in France were able to stimulate nerves and have been able to challenge the long-held belief that disorders of consciousness that persist for longer than 12 months are irreversible.

"By stimulating the vagus nerve, we show that it is possible to improve a patient's presence in the world," Dr. Angela Sirigu, of Institut das Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, said.

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The vagus nerve connects the brain to many other parts of the body, including the gut and it is known to be important in waking, alertness, and many other essential functions.
To test the ability of vagus nerve stimulation to restore consciousness, the researchers wanted to select a difficult case to ensure that any improvements couldn't be explained by chance.
They looked to a patient who had been lying in a vegetative state for more than a decade with no sign of improvement.
The results, which published in the journal Current Biology, show that after one month of vagal nerve stimulation, the patient's attention, movements and brain activity significantly improved.
The patient began responding to simple orders that had been impossible before, and follow an object with his eyes and turn his head upon request.
His mother reported an improved ability to stay awake when listening to his therapist reading a book.
After stimulation, the researchers also observed responses to "threat" that had been absent, for example when an examiner's head suddenly approached the patient's face, he reacted with surprise by opening his eyes wide.
After many years in a vegetative state, he had entered a state of minimal consciousness.

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Brain scans also showed major changes and improvements in movement, sensation, and awareness and also showed increased brain functional connectivity.
A PET also scan showed increases in metabolic activity in both cortical and subcortical regions of the brain.
The scientists says it shows show the right intervention can yield changes in consciousness even in the most severe clinical cases.
"Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished," Sirigu said.
The team now hope the findings will also advance understanding of the capacity of our mind to produce conscious experience.

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