Your central nervous system, including your brain, relies on electrical signals to transmit information. Ever since this was first discovered, researchers have been attempting to use external electrical devices or shocks to manipulate the human brain – for better and for worse.
Back in 2014, researchers at the University of Liège discovered that they could bring people out of comas – including two who were in a vegetative state – when their craniums were stimulated electrically during one short, sharp burst. The effect back then only lasted for a few hours though, so the same group of researchers wondered if the timescale could be extended.
Now, as reported by the journal Brain Injury, it appears that they have succeeded. A group of 16 people with varying degrees of brain damage received 20-minute electrical shock sessions over the course of five days. For at least a week afterwards, nine of them were able to respond to voice commands, look around, recognize faces and objects, and even move their hands a little.
The subjects had been essentially comatose for around 90 days beforehand, which suggested that they weren’t going to awaken from their frozen states themselves. The fact that just over half of these patients were brought back to the conscious realm for about seven days is a remarkable achievement. So what’s going on here?
When a person falls into a coma, they become unresponsive to external stimuli. This is because significant segments of their brain have been damaged and the neurons within them aren’t firing. Enough of the brain is intact, so their basic functions – cardiovascular, respiratory, immune, and so on – remain operational, but their motor functions and consciousness appear to be switched “off”.
Certain segments of the brain have been found to influence consciousness more than others, including the claustrum, the thalamus, and the prefrontal cortex. These experiments primarily targeted the latter, and sent low-level electrical pulses through it in an attempt to get the neurons within firing again.
This appears, at least temporarily, to have worked.
“Even though our findings are based on a small sample size,” the authors write, “these preliminary results strongly support the need to further investigate the use of [electrical shocks] as a therapeutic intervention in patients with disorders of consciousness.”
It must have been pretty devastating for the family and friends of the patients during the aftermath though, as they appear to have fallen back into their states of minimal consciousness post-study. However, this research shows that there is hope that in the future this type of therapy could perhaps permanently bring people out of comas.
[H/T: New Scientist]