Lyon doctors wake man from “veg state” after 15 years

The neurosurgical intervention stimulated the man’s “vagus” nerve - Image for illustration only (Lee Health / Vimeo)

A man who has been in a “vegetative state” for 15 years has recovered minimal consciousness after a new intervention from a Lyon medical team.

The 35-year-old man, who has been living in a non-responsive state at home since he was in a car accident that injured his brain 15 years ago, was the subject of a newly-published study by the Lyon-based partnership, the Marc Jeannerod Institute of Cognitive Sciences and the Civilian Hospices of Lyon.

The neurosurgical intervention successfully stimulated the man’s “vagus” nerve, one of the key nerves in the spinal column, in cycles of every 30 seconds plus five-minute breaks, day and night. After a month of stimulation, the man started to come out of his non-responsive state - where any consciousness appears almost-totally absent - and was named as “minimally conscious”, instead.

He was able to follow an object with his eyes, and carry out simple orders, such as turning his head slowly to the right when asked. He also began crying when his mother played him some of his favourite music.

The finding has been hailed as a significant step forward in understanding the prognosis of patients with brain injury and other “altered consciousness”.

“An old dogma says that there is no chance of improvement in patients with severe brain injury after a year in that state, but that dogma is false, as this study proves,” explained Steven Laureys, head of the similar GIGA-Consciousness study in Liège, Belgium, speaking to French newspaper Le Monde (although he did not take part in the Lyon work).

“This is a very promising surgical intervention,” he said.

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The vagus nerve - which has connections with the lungs, heart and intestines, as well as the base of the brain - is a key part of what makes us conscious, according to doctors.

Stimulation of the nerve has already been proven an effective treatment for some conditions in conscious people, such as epilepsy and even depression.

“We wanted to explore the effects of stimulating the vagus nerve of this patient, and we discussed it and received permission from the family to do so, as well as that from the ethics committee,” explained Angela Sirigu, co-author of the study, also speaking to Le Monde.

There are said to be 1 500 people aged 35 and under in France who have been plunged into a non-responsive or minimally-conscious state, thanks to a brain trauma or injury of some kind.

Sometimes these patients cycle between phases of waking - when they can sometimes open their eyes spontaneously - and sleeping.

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