Michael Schumcher has "blinked" for the first time since being placed in an artificial coma following his skiing accident and was "responding to instructions" last night (Thursday), according to news reports.
Doctors have begun the process of "reawakening" the seven-time Formula 1 world champion four weeks after he struck his head on a rock while skiing off-piste in the French resort of Meribel, his manager confirmed yesterday.
After his sedative intake was gradually reduced, Schumacher blinked during the "first stage" of brain tests, according to sources at CHU hospital in Grenoble cited by the French sports newspaper L'Equipe.
Its deputy editor, Jeremie Arbona, said he was "100 per cent sure" that its story was correct.
The paper reported: "After gradually reducing the sedation of the patient, the team of Professor Emmanuel Gay [who is overseeing Schumacher's treatment] has been doing neurological tests since Monday. During this first stage, the patient blinked."
On Wednesday, Jean-Luc Truelle, a former head of the neurology department at Foch hospital in Suresnes, said that once a patient in Schumacher's position opened his eyes there would be a "re-establishment of some kind of communication, which we verify through simple commands" such as "open your eyes, shut your eyes, squeeze your hand".
"Schumacher appears to show this type of reawakening," L'Equipe reported.
The newspaper claimed it was "undoubtedly the best news" since his accident.
The details confirmed that Schumacher was "responding positively to these different tests and is gradually pursuing his awakening phase," it added. Sky News also quoted sources saying that Schumacher was "responding to instructions".
The reports came hours after Sabine Kehm, Schumacher's manager, finally confirmed French reports that the 45-year-old was slowly being woken from his induced coma, after initially urging well-wishers not to heed "speculation".
"Michael's sedation is being reduced in order to allow the start of the waking-up process, which may take a long time," Miss Kehm said.
"For the protection of the family, it was originally agreed by the interested parties to communicate this information only once this process was consolidated.
"The family of Michael Schumacher is again requesting for their privacy, and the medical secret, to be respected, and to not disturb the doctors treating Michael in their work. At the same time, the family wishes to express sincere appreciation for the sympathy they have received from around the world."
Schumacher has been receiving round-the-clock care in Grenoble University Hospital since his accident on Dec 29. Surgeons have performed two operations to relieve pressure on his brain and remove blood clots.
Prof Truelle said the two months following the awakening phase are a period of confusion in which the patient is in a state of "lethargy". The recovery stage can take "several years in the case of serious head injuries", he added.
It is possible for someone to spend several weeks in an induced coma and make a full recovery. But Professor Gary Hartstein, Formula 1's chief medic between 2005 and 2012, said: "It is extremely unlikely, and I'd honestly say virtually impossible, that the Michael we knew prior to this fall will ever be back."
Prof Truelle insisted, however, that "there are some quite spectacular recoveries that we didn't expect".
Much, he said, depended on a patient's "physical condition and mental strength", as well as the robustness of his immune system."
L'Equipe said that while Schumacher was no longer in a critical condition, the next stage, in which doctors try to gauge the extent of any brain damage, would be crucial.
In particular, doctors will be vigilant for any signs of any "pressure on the brain or pain", it said.
Schumacher's wife, Corinna, 44, has remained at his bedside since the accident, which took place as the German was skiing with their son Mick, 14, and family friends.
While tackling rocky terrain between two runs, Schumacher struck a boulder and was catapulted on to another, with the force splitting his skiing helmet in two. A camera attached to the helmet recorded the entire accident.
Investigators said Schumacher, a highly competent skier, was not travelling at an excessive speed but was in an area where it was difficult to slow down.