Those suffering in minimally conscious or vegetative states might regain consciousness through electrical brain stimulation, say researchers out of Belgium. Due to the number of car accidents and violent occurrences each year, brain damage resulting in minimally conscious or vegetative states is not uncommon. Many families witness loved ones turn from healthy individuals to debilitated patients just moments after an accident. The work from these researchers in Belgium has offered hope to brain damaged patients and their families and has substantial implications for the future, although ethical concerns must be further examined.
According to the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, a vegetative state is one in which patients experience a loss of consciousness while maintaining wakefulness. An experiment out of the University of Liege in Belgium found that patients in minimally conscious or vegetative states for at least three months might regain consciousness through brain stimulation, as published by Brain Injury, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. For the experiment, researchers utilized transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which applies weak electrical stimulation to specific areas of the brain. Different regions of the brain are responsible for different behaviors and functions. The researchers applied tDCS to the prefrontal cortexes (PFCs) of patients, an area of the brain believed to control consciousness.
After just five days of researchers stimulating the PFCs, nine of the sixteen patients with consciousness disorders gained the ability to consciously respond to commands and answer questions by making voluntary movements. Patients given a placebo experienced no such changes in consciousness. As reported by New Scientist Magazine, one of the study’s researchers explained regarding the patients:
They couldn’t speak but we could ask questions, such as “is your name David?” and they answered yes or no by moving a part of their body, like their tongue or their foot. They correctly answered all of the questions we asked.
These remarkable responses resulting from tDCS to the PFC lasted for one week before wearing off. Many believe that extended stimulation to the PFC will lead to longer lasting effects. Implications for the study’s results offer significant hope to those with disorders of consciousness.
The primary goal of the Belgium researchers was for families to eventually gain the ability to perform tDCS on vegetative family members. Giving families this ability may allow the patients to communicate with loved ones once again and to regain consciousness. Our ability to acknowledge and appreciate individual life experiences is a direct consequence of consciousness.
Although the study marks remarkable progress, its implications for the future remain unsure. For one, researchers are uncertain of which brain regions exactly are responsible for the patients regaining consciousness. The PFC forms connections with many other brain regions, which would imply that the stimulation to the PFC during the study also caused stimulation to many other areas of the brain, obscuring which brain regions exactly were responsible for the results. Researchers are also unsure whether prolonged tDCS to the PFC could cause adverse side effects for patients.
The study may also energize ethical debates on whether it is humane to keep patients in permanently vegetative states alive and conscious via tDCS. Findings by the Belgium researchers may strengthen arguments from those believing that patients in permanently vegetative states should be kept alive by doctors. However, even if tDCS allows patients to regain consciousness temporarily, what are the patients’ conscious experiences?
Brain damage or disorders may result in changes to the patients’ perceptions of reality, possibly leading to horrifying conscious experiences for patients. For example, those with schizophrenia show abnormalities in certain areas of their brains. These abnormalities result in hallucinations and paranoia, displaying that the workings of the brain significantly contribute to personal experiences. Perhaps the patients of the Belgium researchers felt such unpleasant experiences after regaining consciousness. That is not to say that the work by researchers in Belgium was unethical. However, we are unaware of the patients’ conscious realities after tDCS treatment and must speculate for the sake of ethics. After all, neurologists of the 1940s believed they were curing distraught patients through ice pick lobotomies, which involved drilling a pick through a patient’s skull to detach the frontal lobe, as explained by Discovery Magazine. The founder of the procedure even won a Nobel Prize for his work. It was not until researchers and citizens in the U.S. further considered ethical concerns that the practice became viewed as abhorrent and died out.
We must contemplate ethics before enacting procedures such as tDCS to vegetative patients. Though consciousness is a wonderful gift that allows individuals to hold unique experiences, it may also prove to be one’s nightmare under certain physical and emotional conditions.
Through further experimentation, it may one day become commonplace for loved ones to communicate with patients in vegetative states through tDCS. Although patients may never regain all of the functions they once had, they could regain the gift of consciousness. At the same token, researchers must contemplate the possible consequences and ethics of such technology.
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