09 October 2017

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The experimenters were silenced by the death of the patient after partial withdrawal from the vegetative state

Oleg Lischuk, N+1

In September 2017, French scientists reported that they had partially restored the consciousness of a patient who had spent 15 years in a vegetative state. Now they have been sharply criticized by colleagues, because they did not indicate in the publication that their ward died a few months later for reasons unrelated to experimental treatment, writes The Guardian.

A vegetative state is a persistent absence of consciousness with the preservation of the functions of internal organs and sleep and wakefulness cycles. It occurs with severe brain damage as a result of injuries or diseases. Partial or complete withdrawal from it is extremely rare, its probability decreases in proportion to the time spent in a vegetative state. There are no effective ways to help such patients today.

From January to September 2016, a research team led by the staff of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences conducted electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve (the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system that transmits signals between the brain and internal organs) to a 35-year-old man who spent 15 years in a vegetative state after a head injury. Part of the fibers of this nerve are directly or indirectly connected to the parietal lobes, thalamus, amygdala, hippocampus and blue spot, which play a key role in providing consciousness, memory, attention, emotions and wakefulness.

According to the publication with the report on the experiment, scientists managed to increase the electrical activity of the brain structures responsible for consciousness, restore oculomotor functions and even emotional reactions. In numerous interviews given after the publication of the article, the head of the work, Angela Sirigu, talked about the results obtained in such a way that it gave the impression of continuing to monitor the patient. However, it turned out that a few months after the completion of the experiment, the man died of pneumonia.

Sirigu explained the concealment of this fact by the desire of the patient's family to avoid public attention. According to her, since the death was not related to the treatment, in the context of the experiment, its mention is not of fundamental importance.

However, representatives of the scientific community did not agree with this opinion. So, a specialist in cognitive sciences from the University of Birmingham Damian Cruse (Damian Cruse) said that the coverage of the work in The media could give excessive optimism to the families of other people in a vegetative state. "If you keep the patient anonymous, there is no reason not to tell about everything," the expert said.

Professor of the University of Lyon Jacques Luauté, who has been observing the patient for a long time, said that together with the family of the deceased, it was decided not to report the death, as this could lead people to a false idea about its connection with electrical stimulation. The scientist admitted that such a decision was a clear mistake.

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