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2 months ago | Health

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Health Tips: This is what it’s really like to wake up from a coma

A new treatment may help restore consciousness to those in a vegetative state.

A man who has spent the last 15 years in a coma is now showing signs of consciousness, thanks to a vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) device implanted in his chest.

The 35-year-old was in a car accident, Tonic reports, and the stimulator, known as a “pacemaker for the brain,” could help restore minimal consciousness to him and other patients who have spent years in a vegetative state, according to a study in Current Biology.

A VNS device, which is already used to treat epilepsy and depression, is a battery that’s surgically installed under the skin in a person’s chest and sends a wire running up to the vagus nerve in their neck. This nerve connects to the brain and is involved in all the essentials, like waking up and being alert.

The device works to electrically stimulate the nerve at certain intervals, just like a pacemaker keeps your heart’s rhythm regular.

After about a month of VNS, there were significant improvements in the man's attention and movements. He could respond to simple commands like following an object with his eyes and turning his head when asked. And, although it took about a minute or so to do it, these were things he previously couldn’t do at all.

The man’s mother also said he was better at staying awake while his therapist read to him and he was better at responding to people’s actions. For example, when someone suddenly approached the man’s face, his eyes widened in surprise. He also shed a tear when his caregivers played his favorite music.

"Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished," Angela Sirigu, study’s co-author and a neuroscientist at Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, said in a statement.

Of course, there's only so much you can expect from such treatment. While hope is high — and the progress the man involved in the study has made is spectacular — considering what a toll being in a vegetative state for years takes on a person's mind and body, it's unlikely that anyone is expecting a full recovery. Being in a coma for even a few hours is dangerous and waking up from a coma is much more work than just opening one's eyes and asking "Where am I?"

David Pemberton, a 31-year-old copywriter living in San Francisco, was put in a medically-induced coma when he was 11 years old after accidentally walking in front of a fast-moving van . His spleen burst on impact and he sustained significant scarring on his face—his left ear had to be sewn back on—legs, and arms.

Although he was in a coma for for only a few hours post-surgery, and not 15 years, there was still a chance it would affect his brain.

“When I woke up, I couldn't move, I could barely speak, and my vision was pretty blurry from swelling and scabbing,” Pemberton told Men’s Health.

His entire digestive system had shut down as well, and he spent the next week in a hospital bed.

“Every day after that, I had to do some light physical therapy to regain my ability to walk,” he said. “My body was so weak that it would be months before I was back to full strength.”

The next step for researchers will be to confirm and extend the results of VNS with more patients in both vegetative and minimally conscious states. If all goes well, we’re one step closer to understanding what Sirigu calls "this fascinating capacity of our mind to produce conscious experience."

Bob Alash Photo

Bob Alash is a Chief Editor at Meets Media, a digital journalist who reports on Health and some other section of our website.

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