The findings raise hope for loved ones of patients in states of limited consciousness.
The French National Center for Scientific Research has completed their first successful test of a neural implant that can restore consciousness to patients who are in a persistent vegetative state, also known as unresponsive wakefulness. The subject of the experiment was a male patient who had been in such a state for the last 15 years, since he was 20 years old.
According to the Guardian, after the implant, the man appeared to flicker back into a state of consciousness. He was able to track objects with his eyes, remain attentive when read to, and he even reacted when lead researcher Dr. Angela Sirigu suddenly moved her face up close to his. However, he remains palsied and unable to speak.
Sirigu remarked in a statement, “Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished.”
For decades, it has been all but a certainty that patients unconscious for more one year would be unlikely to awaken. The results of Sirigu’s research efforts have made a compelling case that consciousness can be restored after a much longer time.
IFLScience! reports that the implant works by stimulating the vagus nerve:
The vagus nerve connects the brain to the gut, along with other parts of the body. Stimulation has been shown to sometimes offer benefits to people with depression or epilepsy. It’s also known to have a role in the process of waking from sleep, and in keeping us alert.
While this treatment is still a long way from restoring full cognitive function, the results of this research brings new hope to those who care for people with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome.