Scientists have just used electrical ‘brain zaps’ to enable minimally conscious people to communicate with their families for a week.
This remarkable technology had previously allowed two patients, who’d spent more than three months in a vegetative state, to show signs of awareness after their brains were stimulated with electricity.
Now, a breakthrough study that trialled the treatment on a large scale could make a huge difference to families of those in a coma, and offer them a chance to experience some small form of communication with the patients.
Conducted at the University of Liège in Belgium, the study saw 16 brain damaged patients given transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) for 20 minutes every day for five consecutive days.
After receiving the treatment the patients, who are in a minimally-conscious coma, displayed a significant improvement in awareness, and were able to respond to commands, recognise objects and perform voluntary motor movements.
Aurore Thibaut, who led the study, told New Scientist about the miraculous effects:
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.
Thibaut added the effects of tDCS can last up to a week, and it is hoped the treatment will be cautiously tested to be trialled for use at home.
You can find similar devices online, but we don’t know the long-term effects yet. We need to see what happens when we use it for perhaps five hours a day, or what happens if we apply it daily for three months. We need to be really careful.
The tDCS treatment targets the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our higher level cognition and is connected to the thalmus, which controls the electrical activity in our brain whenever we are conscious.
After seeing these results in the patients, who hadn’t been able to communicate for at least three months, many families will remain hopeful the tDCS treatment trials go successfully.