After 15 years in a vegetative state with no signs of consciousness a man is now showing minimal signs of "waking" following the implantation of an experimental nerve stimulation device into his chest.

Angela Sirigu and colleagues at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Bron set out to develop a novel way of regaining lost consciousness. The research examined whether stimulating the vagus nerve could have any effect on returning a vegetative patient back to a state of consciousness.

The vagus nerve has been the source of a great deal of compelling research in recent years. Running from the brain to the abdomen, the nerve is responsible for a huge array of different bodily tasks, and it comes into contact with a number of different organs, including the heart, lungs and stomach.

Stimulating the vagus nerve with an electrical current has been shown to reduce epileptic seizures in patients not responsive to drug treatment. This treatment has also proven effective in reducing symptoms of depression. More recently it was discovered that vagus nerve stimulation could potentially be an effective anti-inflammatory treatment.

To examine whether vagus nerve stimulation could restore consciousness in a vegetative patient, the researchers selected a candidate who had been unresponsive for 15 years after a major car accident. After one month of electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve, the man displayed signs of awareness, such as turning his head when asked and following an object with his eyes.

Examining the patient through EEG and PET scans revealed increased brain activity across several areas of the brain. The man was now closer to a state scientists would classify as minimal consciousness after years in a vegetative state.

Needless to say this is literally just one case study and not an indication the key to waking anyone up from an unconscious state has been found. Every case of brain injury is different and not all would be responsive to this kind of treatment, but the study offers a fascinating new insight into what goes on in our body to produce consciousness.

The research was published in the journal Current Biology.

Source: Cell Press via ScienceDaily