A patient with severe traumatic brain injury appears to have regained some consciousness after being in a vegetative state for 15 years. All this is due to a small implant in the 35 year old’s chest.
This discovery is challenging previous notions of a permanent loss of consciousness. A decade ago, if a person remained in a vegetative state – a state of being awake, but not aware – it was time for the family to say their goodbyes. Now, there might be hope.
A team of researchers and clinicians in Lyon, France used Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) to treat the patient. To no one’s surprise, the basic notion of the treatment is that the vagus nerve is stimulated. They chose VNS because the vagus nerve has been shown to generate signals to the so-called noradrenergic pathway, which plays a key role in alertness and arousal – both responses we associate with consciousness. VNS is not a newly developed method. It has been utilized for decades to treat disorders from pharmacoresistant epilepsy to migraines. Perhaps the nerve’s reach is much wider than that.
The team chose a very severe case, as they did not want their results to be interpreted as chance. The idea was that the longer the patient has been in a vegetative state, the less likely it is that they would wake up, therefore any success seen on the case can be correlated to the treatment, not a natural improvement. Just after a month of treatment, the patient showed positive changes. His attention, movements, and brain activity became enhanced. His brain scans were more light up. The patient went from what is medically considered a vegetative state to a minimally conscious state. He could perform tasks he couldn’t before from following objects with his eyes to widening them when a doctor got really close to his face. Even his metabolic activity increased. The patient appeared to regain awareness; to regain consciousness.
Currently, the researchers are planning a comprehensive study that could draw further conclusions about the effects of VNS on patients in the vegetative state. For now, they believe that treatment could help patients regain consciousness even in cases as severe as this one.
This study demonstrates the change in which science has been viewing consciousness. In the XX century neither psychologists, philosophers, nor clinicians engaged in conversations on consciousness. Science is supposed to be objective after all, and is there anything as subjective as consciousness? Perhaps it was believed that the mind is too subjective to ever be described.
As some point scientists realized that the world, especially the inner world of the human brain, cannot be described without looking at the subjective and the objective. Besides, theorizing about time, space, and mass is just as distant from human understanding as consciousness is. If so, perhaps consciousness is just like time, space, and mass. Perhaps instead of thinking of such an integral part of humanity as an idea dangling somewhere in the distance just a little further than our fingertips can reach, it should be considered a fundamental part of the universe. This theory is called panpsychism. It is pretty much as old as time, but was largely abandoned because of the quest for factual, objective information. It might be time to look back in time and consider that these theories might be closer to the truth that we think.
Panpsychism leads to other theories. On a planet line the earth, where certain physical laws have to be adhered to, everything has mass, everything occupies space, and nothing can escape time. That suggests that everything experiences a consciousness as well. The argument isn’t that a particle somewhere is experiencing emotions like euphoria or agony. It has nothing to do with intelligence, emotional or otherwise. Complex organisms, like humans, experience complex consciousness, then why couldn’t simple organisms, or even particles, experience simple, or hybrid, forms of consciousness? Everything falls on a spectrum somewhere. Consciousness could be the same. Now, that’s something to think about.
This theory implies that the 250,000 to 300,000 people in the United States lying somewhere declared to be in a vegetative state experience some sort of consciousness. Alike many other things, science doesn’t know yet. Good thing we are finally realizing how important it is to try and find out.
Image: Luz Adriana Villa A.