The reignited activity bumped his clinical status from vegetative to minimally conscious—an improvement, but still a severely disabled condition. Nevertheless, it gives the researchers optimism that this type of nerve stimulation could help treat other patients with severe brain damage and impaired consciousness. The fact that he was in a vegetative state for so long beforehand makes the results even more convincing, they argue. (The likelihood of regaining consciousness after a single year in an unresponsive state is rather dismal.)

“Our study demonstrates the therapeutic potential of vagus nerve stimulation to modulate large-scale human brain activity and alleviate disorders of consciousness,” the researchers, led by neurologist Angela Sirigu of Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, conclude.