A man has opened his eyes after 15 years spent in a vegetative state, thanks to a potential new treatment that administers non-invasive electrical zaps to the brain.
The patient in France was involved in a car accident in 2001 that saw him spend over a decade without consciousness, a state which Steven Laureys of the University of Liege, Belgium, says many experts incorrectly believe is just a stage of “waiting to die”.
The new findings indicate that it is indeed possible for some patients to make a partial recovery.
The 35-year-old was in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and although he was capable of some involuntary movements, he had no awareness or self or his environment, and this had not improved over time.
The team of surgeons from the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Bron, lead by Angela Sirigu used a technique that required electrical nodes to be applied to the neck and send pulses via the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve runs from the brain to several areas of the body and modulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls heart rate and lung function, among other processes.
It connects to brain areas including the thalamus, which regulates emotion, the hippocampus, which is heavily involved in memories, and the locus coeruleus, which controls the release of chemicals involved in alertness.
The idea is that the administration of electrical pulses over a period of six months - starting at 0.25 milliamperes, increasing by 0.25 mA a week - stimulates activity in certain regions of the brain to help the main regain consciousness.
And the results were almost instant.
As soon as the treatment begun (after an initial month of clinicians monitoring his brain without the electrical nodes) he started to open his eyes more.
After a month, he started to track around the room and respond to doctor’s requests to move his head from side to side. He also attempted to smile, but was not successful.
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.
Experts are convinced that the study, published in the ‘Current Biology’ journal, could be a new treatment for patients, but warn that it will not work in everyone.
A similar innovative treatment was trialed on a 25-year-old in 2016, and saw the man make “remarkable” progress after scientists used an ultrasound to jump-start his brain.
It was the first time this approach had been used to treat serious brain injury and despite the doctors anticipating positive results, the actual outcome was far more impressive.