From The Guardian (September 25, 2017): Nerve implant ‘restores consciousness’ to man in vegetative state by science correspondent Hannah Devlin:
A 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years has shown signs of consciousness after receiving a pioneering therapy involving nerve stimulation.
The treatment challenges a widely-accepted view that there is no prospect of a patient recovering consciousness if they have been in a vegetative state for longer than 12 months.
Since sustaining severe brain injuries in a car accident, the man had been completely unaware of the world around him. But when fitted with an implant to stimulate the vagus nerve, which travels into the brain stem, the man appeared to flicker back into a state of consciousness.
He started to track objects with his eyes, began to stay awake while being read a story and his eyes opened wide in surprise when the examiner suddenly moved her face close to the patient’s. He could even respond to some simple requests, such as turning his head when asked – although this took about a minute…
Readers may be wondering: why is the vagus nerve so important? Devlin explains:
The vagus nerve, which the treatment targeted, connects the brain to almost all the vital organs in the body, running from the brain stem down both sides of the neck, across the chest and into the abdomen. In the brain, it is linked directly to two regions known to play roles in alertness and consciousness.
In surgery lasting about 20 minutes, a small implant was placed around the vagus nerve in the man’s neck. After one month of vagal nerve stimulation, the patient’s attention, movements and brain activity significantly improved and he had shifted into a state of minimal consciousness…
The latest breakthrough adds to a growing volume of evidence that many PVS patients are capable of thinking and responding appropriately to people around them, if assisted in the right manner:
During the past decade, scientists have made major advances in communicating with “locked in” patients using various forms of brain-computer interface.
These have allowed paralysed patients, some of whom had been assumed to be in a vegetative state, to answer “yes” or “no” to questions to let their family and friends know their wishes and their state of wellbeing.
Here’s a question for readers to ponder: should we dispense with the term “permanent vegetative state” altogether? Why or why not?