A French man showed signs of consciousness after spending 15 years in a vegetative state, according to a study published Monday in the medical journal Current Biology.
The New York Daily News reports that the unnamed man had been in a car crash at the age of 20 and had been in a vegetative state for 15 years, only having the ability to open his eyes occasionally. Doctors say he did not show any other signs of awareness.
Dr. Angela Sirigu of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives — Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, led the study and discovered, along with a group of researchers, that stimulating the vagus nerve in the body could wake the man up from his vegetative state.
The vagus nerve is a nerve that extends from the brain through the neck, chest, and abdomen down to the colon. It regulates heart rate, muscles in the small intestine, and sweating. According to the Mayo Clinic, vagus nerve stimulation has been used to treat depression and epilepsy when other treatments have failed.
But this is the first time vagus nerve stimulation has been used to bring someone out of a vegetative state.
Sirigu and her team implanted a device in the patient’s chest underneath his skin and sent electrical currents up the nerve to his brain stem.
The researchers found that he was able to move and respond to external stimuli consciously after six months.
The man still cannot speak due to the severe brain damage he has suffered, but he can use his eyes to follow movement and turn his head when someone speaks to him. The Associated Press reports that the man cried when he heard his favorite song.
The study notes that this technique may not work for all patients in a vegetative state but stresses that it is “challenging the belief that disorders of consciousness persisting after 12 months are irreversible.”