A man regained consciousness after 15 years in a vegetative state.

Posted by K R on

It’s difficult to agree on one definition of consciousness, so it’s confusing to read reports that someone who was in a coma for 15 years suddenly regained it. What does it mean to be aware of yourself and the world around you? If you pass out and then “regain consciousness,” it's clear that you woke up with many of the same abilities you had when you shut your eyes. But that’s not what happened to this patient. What did he regain? A case report out today in Current Biology tells of one man who had a car accident 15 years ago, putting him into a vegetative state. Operating under the hypothesis that stimulating the vagus nerve—one of the main cranial nerves—might help the brain to regain function, neurologists started treating the man with small electrical impulses. Vagus nerve stimulation can help epilepsy patients and people with depression, but it’s being investigated as a treatment for a huge range of other disorders. The nerve is connected to so many organs that it can influence many bodily functions, potentially without the side effects that come along with many medications. It seemed worth a shot, so doctors implanted a small device in the patient's upper left chest that could stimulate his vagus nerve. They saw improvements after just a month. The subject's brain showed increased activity in areas that had previously been quiet. He was eventually able to follow a moving object with his eyes, and turn his face when he listened to his favorite music. We can all probably agree that in this case—when someone is reacting to people and music and questions—consciousness has been regained. But the problem isn’t how we define consciousness on a case-by-case basis; it’s how we define the concept in general. A vegetative state is generally considered to be a lack of awareness of yourself and your environment, whereas a “minimally conscious” person can grasp at objects, make eye contact, or respond to commands. Brain imaging tools can help to establish whether there’s any activity going on in the absence of movement. There’s also a Coma Recovery Scale that tracks the many ways a patient can regain function, from eye movements to auditory function to physical motion. A person’s score on that scale can help determine whether they’re minimally conscious or in a fully vegetative state. Even for this case, the CRS was just one of the tools that researchers used. They also implemented various brain imaging techniques to determine which parts of the patient’s mind were active.

Read More: Popular Science


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