Researchers Restore Consciousness to Man After 15 Years in Coma

by David Nussman  •  •  September 26, 2017   

Experimental treatment enables patient to move eyes, turn head on command

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LYON, France ( - A team of medical researchers and clinicians announced Monday that they were able to restore minimal consciousness to a man in a comatose state for 15 years.

The project tested whether vagus nerve stimulation would help a comatose patient in a so-called "vegetative state." Typically used to treat epilepsy and depression, vagus nerve stimulation involves transmitting a pattern of mild electrical signals to the brain through the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that plays a crucial role in the brain's control over various bodily functions. The clinicians and researchers applied the treatment to the patient and noticed major differences in brain activity.

According to findings published Monday, a team at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives-Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France found that "potentiating vagus nerve inputs to the brain helps to restore consciousness even after many years of being in a vegetative state, thus challenging the belief that disorders of consciousness persisting after 12 months are irreversible."

In addition to the change in brain activity, the research team and others also observed changes in his behavior. For instance, the patient's eyes could follow moving objects, and he was able to turn his head on command. The researchers claim that "clinical examination revealed reproducible and consistent improvements in general arousal, sustained attention, body motility and visual pursuit."

This finding challenges the growing trend of killing the victims of severe brain injuries under the banner of euthanasia, or so-called mercy killing.

This finding challenges the growing trend of killing the victims of severe brain injuries under the banner of euthanasia, or so-called mercy killing. Just last week, a U.K. judge claimed that doctors should be able to starve comatose patients to death without court permission, regardless of whether the patient is deemed vegetative or minimally conscious. For minimally conscious patients, this could mean watching and listening as medical professionals talk about cutting their feeding tubes and leaving them there to die a slow, painful death, unable to cry out for help.


Dr. Joseph J. Fins,

patients' rights advocate

Some medical professionals are speaking out in defense of the legal rights of victims of severe brain damage. One of these advocates is Dr. Joseph J. Fins, who co-directs the Consortium for the Advanced Study of Brain Injury at Cornell University.

In 2014, Fins wrote a book titled Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics and the Struggle for Consciousness. The book tells the story of Maggie Worthen, who was in a comatose state from her massive stroke in 2006 until her death in 2015. Doctors initially thought she was in a vegetative state, but after 18 months it was confirmed that Maggie was fully aware of her surroundings. They developed a piece of technology that would hold Maggie's eyes open and track her eye movements. Since Maggie had some control over her eye movements, this enabled her to answer basic questions and thus communicate with those around her.

In an August 24 op-ed for The New York Times, Fins wrote that patients suffering severe brain injuries are a marginalized minority for whom "access to care is strained."

"Utilization reviewers and insurance benefit companies," he explained, "will deny access to rehabilitation to many individuals when they leave the hospital because they are deemed not yet ready for rehabilitation."

The situation is even more dramatic when one considers that many minimally conscious patients are misdiagnosed as vegetative.

"But when nearly half of those who could participate [in rehabilitation] are misdiagnosed as vegetative when they are actually minimally conscious," Fins argued, "this vulnerable group is further marginalized."

In a September 13 article for STAT News, Fins repeated his message, condemning the way patients with severe brain damage are treated. "These injustices are all the more egregious at a time when medical progress is changing our understanding of severe brain injuries," he insisted.

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