A man that's been in a coma for the past 15 years has finally started showing signs of consciousness after getting a new nerve implant. The 35-year-old man received a new piece of technology that's going to allow him to track different objects with his eyes as well as being able to respond to some simple requests.
This new type of treatment is challenging the current beliefs that if a patient has been in a persistent vegetative state for more than 12 months, there is little to no hope of them ever being able to recover consciousness. The patient in question sustained very severe brain injuries during a car accident and has been unaware of the surrounding world ever since. However, when he received the implant, which stimulates the vagus nerve that travels to the brain stem, the patient seemed to slowly start going back to a state of consciousness. The patient later managed to regain consciousness and did, in fact, start tracking various objects with his eyes, and he was also able to read a story. Then, when the examiner suddenly moved her head closer to the man's, he opened his eyes in surprise. The man also managed to respond to some of the simple requests that the examiner made, like turning his head to the side, even though it took him about a minute to do so.
Niels Birbaumer, who's a pioneer of brain-computer interfaces and works at the University of Tübingen, helps patients that have neurological disorders to communicate more easily, said that the findings from the brain implant are now raising some serious ethical questions, specifically regarding the 12-month PVS period.
The work for this treatment was done at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, and Angela Sirigu, who led the project stated the patient is still paralyzed and unable to talk, but he is still able to respond. In the treatment, they targeted the vagus nerve, that connects the brain to practically all of the body's vital organs, and starts from the brain stem, down the sides of the neck, then goes across the chest to the abdomen. And in the brain, it's linked to two regions that are currently known to take part in consciousness and alertness. The surgery to insert the implant took about 20 minutes and was inserted in the neck, around this nerve. Then, the patient was stimulated for a month, during which time he started shifting into a state of minimal consciousness until he fully woke up. The best part about these types of treatments is that there have been many improvements for these types of patients in the last decade, by using different forms of brain-computer interfaces.