The scientific community is abuzz this week after news that a man who was in a coma for 15 years suddenly regained consciousness. Lying in a vegetative state for just one year radically reduces a patient’s chances of recovery. So the fact that a man regained consciousness after a 15 year coma is extremely significant to the medical and scientific community.
The twist, however, is what cannabis has to do with his recovery. No, the man in a coma wasn’t dosed with medical cannabis. In fact, marijuana has nothing to do with his particular recovery at all.
But that’s not the point. Rather, it’s how the man regained consciousness that matters. And that’s where cannabis comes in. Although weed didn’t wake this particular patient up from his coma, it does have something very important to do with how he woke up.
WAKING UP FROM A 15 YEAR COMA
In a study which appeared in the September 2017 issue of Current Biology, researchers argued that stimulating a central nerve in the brain can benefit the process of recovering consciousness.
When patients lie in a vegetative coma, they suffer severe impairments of consciousness. Doctors use the word “unresponsive” to describe patients in such a state. Since the likelihood of regaining consciousness drops dramatically after one year in a coma, finding new and promising ways to repair lost consciousness is critical.
In their report, the researchers presented evidence showing that stimulating a key brain nerve called the “vagus nerve” can raise the consciousness level of someone in a coma. The study issued findings related to a single patient, a man, who had been in a vegetative state for more than a decade. The remarkable outcome? He regained consciousness after 15 year coma.
VAGUS NERVE STIMULATION
The vagus nerve plays an extremely important role in the brain. Think of it like an internet router. The vagus nerve distributes information in the form of nerve impulses throughout the brain. In essence, the vagus nerve is plugged in to every major part of the brain and central nervous system.
Brain researchers have linked activity in certain parts of the brain to the spontaneous recovery of consciousness. The idea goes, if you can create activity in those parts of the brain in a coma patient, you might be able to wake them up.
Sure enough, stimulating the vagus nerve with electrical impulses creates a flurry of activity in the regions of the brain that can help a person recover consciousness.
In fact, because of the central role the vagus nerve plays, stimulating it can benefit many other neurological disorders, including epilepsy, fibromyalgia and chronic pain. In one January 2016 study, researchers concluded that vagus nerve stimulation is “one of the most promising chronic pain interventions under development today.”
Best of all, vagus nerve stimulation has a high safety profile, which means it is much less riskier than many prescription medications or invasive procedures offered to treat those symptoms.
This list goes on, but enough about the vagus nerve. It’s important, and stimulating it can produce many therapeutic benefits. So what does cannabis have to do with all of this?
CANNABIS CAN STIMULATE THE VAGUS NERVE
Here’s a wild thought: what if the reason weed gives people the munchies is the same reason it stimulates the vagus nerve? It sounds far-fetched. But the way cannabis interacts with our gut-brain connections is actually a primary mechanism for stimulating the vagus nerve.
When humans get hungry and experience that stomach pang that means it’s time to eat, their brains are reacting to a hormone called ghrelin. The vagus nerve is tied into the GI tract. The hormone, ghrelin, stimulates the nerve in the gut. The signals pass along the gut-brain axis to the hypothalamus, causing hunger pangs.
Typically, the stomach produces ghrelin when it’s empty. But when you get high, THC tricks the ghrelin receptors into activating. The result? A classic case of the munchies.
But the fact remains, THC stimulates the vagus nerve through its connections to the gut. More rigorous studies, like this 2016 report published in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, have verified the active role cannabis plays in vagus nerve stimulation.
Ever since the discovery of the human endocannabinoid system, researchers have been exploring every avenue into its relevance for health and treating disease. Our bodies naturally make their own “cannabis-like” chemicals with their own network of receptors. Cannabis stimulates that network, producing far-reaching effects.
Many of those effects concern our GI tracts and the connections between our brains and our gut.
In other words, activating the endocannabinoid system with cannabis directly stimulates the vagus nerve. And that’swhat cannabis has to do with the story of a man who regains consciousness after a 15 year coma.
IMPORTANCE OF FURTHER RESEARCH ON CANNABIS
And there are many other indirect ways that medical cannabis use can stimulate the vagus nerve. Due to its integral nature in our bodies, there are dozens of ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, many of which cannabis makes possible.
Besides the ghlerin mechanism, things like coughing and laughter, which tense the stomach muscles, can stimulate the vagus nerve. Even maintaining positive social relationships, something marijuana excels at, will tickle that special brain-gut connection.
Perhaps there’s even another link. The vagus nerve can help treat chronic pain and fatigue, and so can cannabis. Many testimonials from cannabis patients attest to the effective relief weed provides, but hard evidence is scant.
So of course, we’re not claiming that cannabis can help someone in a coma. It can’t. But stimulating the vagus can, and cannabis can stimulate that, along with many other things that also stimulate the nerve.
And that’s exactly why so much more research needs to be done on medical cannabis, the endocannabinoid system and the complex ways our bodies and minds communicate.
The potential is clearly there. We’re not saying cannabis is some miracle cure that on top of everything else can make a man regains consciousness after a 15 year coma.
But medical cannabis does continue to reveal its potential for helping treat a broad spectrum of physiological problems.