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Man regains consciousness after 15 years in vegetative state

A French man has regained consciousness after 15 years in a vegetative state, doctors reported Monday in the journal Current Biology.

The man, who remains unnamed, was in a car crash at age 20 and has spent the last 15 years in a vegetative state, able to occasionally open his eyes (therefore ruling out a coma, which results in no bodily movement), but with no other signs of awareness.

The study was led by Dr. Angela Sirigu of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives — Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, who, along with a team of researchers, discovered that the key to waking the man up lied in the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, extending from the colon all the way up through the abdomen, chest, and neck to the brain. It’s in charge of tasks like regulating heart rate, sweating and controlling muscles in the small intestine. Doctors stimulate the vagus nerve to treat depression and seizures from epilepsy.

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Sirigu and her team stimulated the nerve by implanting a device underneath the skin in his chest, similar to a pacemaker, and sending electrical currents along the nerve to the brain stem. They saw improvement after just a month, but six months later, he was able to move and consciously respond to external stimuli.

The man still suffers severe brain damage and cannot speak, but he was able to follow movement with his eyes, turn his head when someone was speaking to him and even appeared to cry upon hearing his favorite song.

Because traumatic brain injuries have so many different causes, this technique may not work for all patients in similar vegetative states, but it is a key to “challenging the belief that disorders of consciousness persisting after 12 months are irreversible,” states the study.

Vegetative states lasting more than a year are typically seen as lost causes, but this French man isn’t the first person to wake up after long-term unconsciousness lasting over a decade. Martin Pistorius, from South Africa, was in a vegetative state for 12 years, Terry Wallis of Arkansas woke from a 19-year coma in 2003 and Jan Grzebski, from Poland, woke from his 19-year coma in 2006.

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