Can a New Medical Procedure Help Restore Consciousness to Our Loved Ones in Vegetative States?

October 16, 2017 | Crandall & Pera Law
Can a New Medical Procedure Help Restore Consciousness to Our Loved Ones in Vegetative States?

Medical research is moving so quickly now that it can be hard to keep up with the developments. Recently, a story about nerve stimulation caught our eye – not because of the risks that might be associated with it, but because of an extraordinary response it has had on a man in a persistent vegetative state (PVS).

The Guardian reports that a new “treatment challenges a widely-accepted view that there is no prospect of a patient recovering consciousness if they have been in PVS for longer than 12 months.” By stimulating the vagus nerve, doctors were able to elicit a response form a man who had been in this state for 15 years. The patient had severe brain injuries as a result of a car crash; he had been in a persistent vegetative state ever since. But after doctors fitted him with the implant, he seemingly regained consciousness. The article says:

“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.

Angela Sirigu, who led the work at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, said: ‘He is still paralyses, he cannot talk, but he can respond. Now he is more aware.’”

How does the implant work?

The device is surgically implanted into the vagus nerve – the longest cranial nerve in the body, running from your brain stem all the way to your stomach. The device was placed in the area of the patient’s neck, and stimulator was implanted in his chest. Once the device is set, it sends little pulses of electricity to the vagus nerve.

There was no guarantee it would work: after all, as Science explains “Such nerve stimulation has been explored as a therapy for a wide range of disorders such as epilepsy, depression, arthritis, and cluster headaches, although it’s unclear exactly why it works.... Electrically stimulating the thalamus can temporarily rouse a person in a minimally conscious state, and Sirigu wondered what would happen if she stimulated it for long periods of time.”

What happened, in short, was that it worked. The patient’s progress has, of course, been slow – but it is there. And that is extraordinary, because being in a persistent vegetative state is a frustrating half-life for both the patients suspended there, and for their families. In a coma, a person is more or less in a prolonged sleep; in PVS, that person may have some low-level brain function, but not enough to communicate wants and needs to their caretakers.

This experimental therapy may have just changed all of that, opening a new world of possibility for victims and their loved ones. There is no way of knowing how much farther the patient can or will progress with more treatment – but it’s a pretty good start.

The brain injury attorneys of Crandall & Pera Law help families fight for their loved ones and their futures. With multiple offices in Ohio and Kentucky, we are always nearby when you need us the most. To schedule a free consultation, please complete our contact form or call us: in Kentucky, at 877-686-8879; and in Ohio, at 877-686-8879.