Last month, French scientists released a widely-celebrated study showing they had partially restored consciousness in a man who had spent half of his life in a vegetative state. While the rest of the world assumed he was alive, it’s now been revealed that the man actually died months before their report was published.
The study, published last month in the journal Current Biology, involved vagal nerve stimulation to induce signs of consciousness in a 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years after a car accident. Following this treatment, he was able to smile, move his eyes, turn his head, and respond to basic commands.
However, the study did not mention that the man had died in June 2017. His death was only publically admitted last week during an interview in the French newspaper Le Parisien, where researcher Professor Marc Guenot claimed his death was not connected to the treatment.
“Unfortunately, this man died this year, a pulmonary complication,” Professor Guenot told Le Parisien last week. “This has strictly no connection with electrical stimulation.”
When asked if he was concerned with fostering false hope for families in this situation, Professor Guenot responded: “There is no question of that. And the family of this 35-year-old man was warned... The brain injuries of these patients are irreversible.”
The researchers also gave statements to the press which suggested the man was still alive. Lead researcher Angela Sirigu told The Guardian in September: “He is still paralyzed, he cannot talk, but he can respond. Now he is more aware.” Although, since most of the scientists on the project are French, it’s entirely possible their statements were lost in translation.
Nevertheless, their failure to disclose the information has aroused questions about transparency and ethics in science. The researchers claim they made the decision to not reveal the death out of respect to the man’s family, as well as concerns that people might have wrongly blamed the therapy for his death.
Professor Jacques Luauté of the University of Lyon, another researcher from the study, told Le Monde: “We had discussed it with the family. Together, we wrongly thought that this would lead to people making a link between the stimulation and the death. We concluded that the death – unrelated to experimentation – was a private family event."
"This was a mistake because it was obvious that we’d been asked what had become of the patient.”