A 35-year-old man who had been in coma and vegetative state for 15 years after a car accident has shown signs of consciousness. This happened after a vagus nerve stimulator was implanted into his chest, researchers said Monday.
The outcome, reported in the U.S. journal Current Biology, challenged the general belief that disorders of consciousness that persist for longer than 12 months are irreversible.
“By stimulating the vagus nerve, we show that it is possible to improve a patient’s presence in the world,” Angela Sirigu of Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, said in a statement.
The treatment, known as vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), is already in use for epilepsy and depression.
The vagus nerve connects the brain to many other parts of the body, including the gut, and it’s known to be important in waking, alertness, and many other essential functions.
To test the ability of VNS to restore consciousness, the researchers wanted to select a difficult case to ensure that any improvements couldn’t be explained by chance.
They looked to a patient who had been lying in a vegetative state for more than a decade with no sign of improvement.