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Patients at the receiving end of fatalities sometimes enter a coma, a mental and physical unconscious state of being. But brain trauma or neurological disorders can also culminate in individuals who show minimal consciousness or MCS, which means they are vaguely aware of their surroundings. Patients can occasionally blink their eyes, but cannot communicate in any other manner. It was this unfortunate condition, incidentally impacting millions of Americans per year, which prompted scientists, to come up with a revolutionary idea. They aimed to develop a method which allows sufferers to connect with their friends and family, even if only temporarily.

Spearheaded by Dr. Steven Laureys and his colleagues at Belgium’s University of Liège, an experiment was conducted that resulted in patients showing signs of recognition and awareness when subjected to low-level electrical stimulation. A zap that brought them back! It was obviously an emotional ordeal for their families, as they realized that their loved ones may never fully wake up, yet these few moments of interaction brought some consolation.

What Happened During Trials

Initially, 15 participants, two of whom were in a vegetative state, sustained a “shock”, namely a transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) directed to the cortex of the brain. This was done for 20 minutes at a time.

Following this, actual movement was seen for about two hours before they lapsed back into their original position. Movements included hand gestures, shifting gaze as instructed, and some of the participants could even respond.

tDCS administration at National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry Hospital. A subject (front) sits on a sofa relaxed, and a researcher (behind) controls the tDCS device (a). In this picture, anodal (b) and cathodal (c) electrodes with 35-cm2 size are put on F3 and right supraorbital region, respectively. We use a head strap (d) for convenience and reproducibility, and also use a rubber band (e) for reducing resistance

tDCS administration at National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry Hospital. A subject (front) sits on a sofa relaxed, and a researcher (behind) controls the tDCS device (a). In this picture, anodal (b) and cathodal (c) electrodes with 35-cm2 size are put on F3 and right supraorbital region, respectively. We use a head strap (d) for convenience and reproducibility, and also use a rubber band (e) for reducing resistance (CC BY 4.0)

The satisfactory outcome of the aforementioned led to further investigation. Now, 16 partially conscious, brain-damaged individuals underwent either of two cases. They either underwent a mild vibration that didn’t entail any effects, or a session of tDCS for five consequent days. After this, the treatments were exchanged.

The result? Nine of the total tDCS-affected volunteers were noticeably in a much-improved state and were performing activities such as recognition, fine motor skills, and reaction to commands. Two of them exceeded expectations by correctly answering questions via signaling, although not orally, as verified by the researchers themselves.

What Happens to the Brain

The prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for transmitting electrical wave-like signals and maintaining consciousness, was targeted. Why? Unlike in a normal person where there is constant activity in all parts of the brain, the minimally conscious’ brain lacks these same functions, thus, inspiring the research team, to apply stimulation in these areas. A sort of kick start to the inactive parts! It was believed that this re-started brain activity and motivated inter-communication in the vital regions.

Scientifically, this concluded that the duration of electrical administration exerted on the brain was directly proportional to state of consciousness. Dr. Laureys has insisted that the “recovery” was possible owing to the cerebrum being flexible in nature, albeit enduring several years of damage.

Daily electrical stimulation could be carried out at home (Aurore Thibaut)

Success Story & Future

The concept has definitely roused the interest of relatives of patients, so much so that fellow author of the study, Aurore Thibaut, was quoted telling ABC News, “[The families] know they cannot recover, they cannot speak or work again. They say, ‘Okay, even if it’s a little thing I will try everything to improve to the state of my [loved one].’”

The co-creators of this inexpensive stimulation device, upon discovering its potential, are now further investigating its application outside of hospitals, especially for hospice care patients or the disabled. Director at Moss Rehab Research Institute, John Whyte calls this “an encouraging development” although a lot remains to be seen in terms of sustainability, safety and ethics.

The Brain Stimulator v3.0 tDCS Device

The Brain Stimulator v3.0 tDCS Device (thebrainstimulator)

Science and technology is so far advanced that it talks of the high standards achieved in terms of inventions and development, and importantly, progress in areas of medicine and healthcare. Creations like these, though still in nascent phases, are definitely here to stay.

Top image: Illustration of brain zap (Zee News)

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Meghna Rao, MSc

A postgraduate in Bioscience with work experience in research and communications in the healthcare, medical and scientific domains; areas of specialization include scientific content creation, medical editing, blogging in science and biotechnology, with a fair knowledge in grant writing and scientific journalism. Also, she is passionate about travel blogging, practicing yoga, volunteering in non-profits for education. Read More

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