New technology could raise awareness in minimally conscious patients

Xavier Symons
8 Mar 2014
Reproduced with Permission

A promising way of rousing minimally conscious patients has been developed by a group of Belgian researchers. In the April edition of the journal Neurology, the researchers, a team from Liège University, outline how electric stimulation can increase awareness in patients with greatly reduced consciousness.

They found that 15 out of 55 minimally conscious patients responded to the stimulation by becoming more responsive and two were even able to communicate nonverbally with researchers. Those in a vegetative state did not show any reaction.

"These results are all the more impressive because they can occur in chronic patients, i.e. years after their accident, when their state is often considered as no longer being able to evolve", said Aurore Thibaut, the chief author of the paper. Unfortunately the improvement is only temporary and patients return to their original state after several hours.

In a minimally conscious state a patient will exhibit minimal or occasional signs of awareness, from following an image with their eyes to reaching for an object, but they can go weeks to months without responding to anything at all.

The researchers are now working on the effect of long-term stimulations to prolong and maintain the benefits of these electrical stimulations on the brain.

The safe and relatively cheap technique, known as transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), has already been reported in previous studies as improving attention span, working memory and language functions.

Dr. Michael DeGeorgia, an American neurologist, said more research like this study is needed to understand how much information a minimally-conscious patient can process. Patients may just be "locked in", and still understand what's going on around them though they unable to respond.