The right median nerve can be stimulated electrically to help arouse the central nervous system for persons with reduced levels of consciousness. The mechanisms of central action include increased cerebral blood flow and raised levels of dopamine. There is 11 years of experience in the USA of using nerve stimulation for acute coma after traumatic brain injury. There is a much longer period of experience by neurosurgeons in Japan with implanted electrodes on the cervical spinal cord for persons in the persistent vegetative state (PVS). But the use of right median nerve electrical stimulation (RMNS) for patients in the subacute and chronic phases of coma is relatively new. Surface electrical stimulation to treat anoxic brain injury as well as traumatic brain injury is evolving. Novel applications of electrical stimulation in Amsterdam have produced cognitive behavioural effects in persons with early and mid-stage Alzheimer's disease employing transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Improvements in short-term memory and speech fluency have also been noted. Regardless of the aetiology of the coma or reduced level of awareness, electrical stimulation may serve as a catalyst to enhance central nervous system functions. It remains for the standard treatments and modalities to retrain the injured brain emerging from reduced levels of consciousness. © 2005 Psychology Press Ltd.