Whether unique to humans or not, consciousness is a central aspect of our experience of the world. The neural fingerprint of this experience, however, remains one of the least understood aspects of the human brain. In this paper we employ graph-theoretic measures and support vector machine classification to assess, in 12 healthy volunteers, the dynamic reconfiguration of functional connectivity during wakefulness, propofol-induced sedation and loss of consciousness, and the recovery of wakefulness. Our main findings, based on resting-state fMRI, are three-fold. First, we find that propofol-induced anesthesia does not bear differently on long-range versus short-range connections. Second, our multi-stage design dissociated an initial phase of thalamo-cortical and cortico-cortical hyperconnectivity, present during sedation, from a phase of cortico-cortical hypoconnectivity, apparent during loss of consciousness. Finally, we show that while clustering is increased during loss of consciousness, as recently suggested, it also remains significantly elevated during wakefulness recovery. Conversely, the characteristic path length of brain networks (i.e., the average functional distance between any two regions of the brain) appears significantly increased only during loss of consciousness, marking a decrease of global information-processing efficiency uniquely associated with unconsciousness. These findings suggest that propofol-induced loss of consciousness is mainly tied to cortico-cortical and not thalamo-cortical mechanisms, and that decreased efficiency of information flow is the main feature differentiating the conscious from the unconscious brain.
One of the most elusive aspects of the human brain is the neural fingerprint of the subjective feeling of consciousness. While a growing body of experimental evidence is starting to address this issue, to date we are still hard pressed to answer even basic questions concerning the nature of consciousness in humans as well as other species. In the present study we follow a recent theoretical construct according to which the crucial factor underlying consciousness is the modality with which information is exchanged across different parts of the brain. In particular, we represent the brain as a network of regions exchanging information (as is typically done in a comparatively young branch of mathematics referred to as graph theory), and assess how different levels of consciousness induced by anesthetic agent affect the quality of information exchange across regions of the network. Overall, our findings show that what makes the state of propofol-induced loss of consciousness different from all other conditions (namely, wakefulness, light sedation, and consciousness recovery) is the fact that all regions of the brain appear to be functionally further apart, reducing the efficiency with which information can be exchanged across different parts of the network.
Mechanisms of propofol-induced loss of consciousness remain poorly understood. Recent fMRI studies have shown decreases in functional connectivity during unconsciousness induced by this anesthetic agent. Functional connectivity does not provide information of directional changes in the dynamics observed during unconsciousness. The aim of the present study was to investigate, in healthy humans during an auditory task, the changes in effective connectivity resulting from propofol induced loss of consciousness. We used Dynamic Causal Modeling for fMRI (fMRI-DCM) to assess how causal connectivity is influenced by the anesthetic agent in the auditory system. Our results suggest that the dynamic observed in the auditory system during unconsciousness induced by propofol, can result in a mixture of two effects: a local inhibitory connectivity increase and a decrease in the effective connectivity in sensory cortices.
Since the dawn of time, Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) have intrigued and, nowadays, are still not fully explained. Since reports of NDEs are proposed to be imagined events, and since memories of imagined events have, on average, fewer phenomenological characteristics than real events memories, we here compared phenomenological characteristics of NDEs reports with memories of imagined and real events. We included three groups of coma survivors (8 patients with NDE as defined by the Greyson NDE scale, 6 patients without NDE but with memories of their coma, 7 patients without memories of their coma) and a group of 18 age-matched healthy volunteers. Five types of memories were assessed using Memory Characteristics Questionnaire (MCQ – Johnson et al., 1988): target memories (NDE for NDE memory group, coma memory for coma memory group, and first childhood memory for no memory and control groups), old and recent real event memories and old and recent imagined event memories. Since NDEs are known to have high emotional content, participants were requested to choose the most emotionally salient memories for both real and imagined recent and old event memories. Results showed that, in NDE memories group, NDE memories have more characteristics than memories of imagined and real events (p<0.02). NDE memories contain more self-referential and emotional information and have better clarity than memories of coma (all ps<0.02). The present study showed that NDE memories contained more characteristics than real event memories and coma memories. Thus, this suggests that they cannot be considered as imagined event memories. On the contrary, their physiological origins could lead them to be really perceived although not lived in the reality. Further work is needed to better understand this phenomenon.
The Vegetative and Minimally Conscious States (VS; MCS) are characterized by absent or highly disordered signs of awareness alongside preserved sleep-wake cycles. According to international diagnostic guidelines, sleep-wake cycles are assessed by means of observations of variable periods of eye-opening and eye-closure. However, there is little empirical evidence for true circadian sleep-wake cycling in these patients, and there have been no large-scale investigations of the validity of this diagnostic criterion.
We measured the circadian sleep-wake rhythms of 55 VS and MCS patients by means of wrist actigraphy, an indirect method that is highly correlated with polysomnographic estimates of sleeping/waking.
Contrary to the diagnostic guidelines, a significant proportion of patients did not exhibit statistically reliable sleep-wake cycles. The circadian rhythms of VS patients were significantly more impaired than those of MCS patients, as were the circadian rhythms of patients with non-traumatic injuries relative to those with traumatic injuries. The reliability of the circadian rhythms were significantly predicted by the patients' levels of visual and motor functioning, consistent with the putative biological generators of these rhythms.
The high variability across diagnoses and etiologies highlights the need for improved guidelines for the assessment of sleep-wake cycles in VS and MCS, and advocates the use of actigraphy as an inexpensive and non-invasive alternative.
Vegetative State; Minimally Conscious State; circadian rhythms; sleep; actigraphy
There is an intimate relationship between consciousness and the notion of self. By studying patients with disorders of consciousness, we are offered with a unique lesion approach to tackle the neural correlates of self in the absence of subjective reports. Studies employing neuroimaging techniques point to the critical involvement of midline anterior and posterior cortices in response to the passive presentation of self-referential stimuli, such as the patient’s own name and own face. Also, resting state studies show that these midline regions are severely impaired as a function of the level of consciousness. Theoretical frameworks combining all this progress surpass the functional localization of self-related cognition and suggest a dynamic system-level approach to the phenomenological complexity of subjectivity. Importantly for non-communicating patients suffering from disorders of consciousness, the clinical translation of these technologies will allow medical professionals and families to better comprehend these disorders and plan efficient medical management for these patients.
consciousness; self; neuroimaging; disorders of consciousness; default mode network; external awareness
In order to better understand the functional contribution of resting state activity to conscious cognition, we aimed to review increases and decreases in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) functional connectivity under physiological (sleep), pharmacological (anesthesia), and pathological altered states of consciousness, such as brain death, coma, vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, and minimally conscious state. The reviewed resting state networks were the DMN, left and right executive control, salience, sensorimotor, auditory, and visual networks. We highlight some methodological issues concerning resting state analyses in severely injured brains mainly in terms of hypothesis-driven seed-based correlation analysis and data-driven independent components analysis approaches. Finally, we attempt to contextualize our discussion within theoretical frameworks of conscious processes. We think that this “lesion” approach allows us to better determine the necessary conditions under which normal conscious cognition takes place. At the clinical level, we acknowledge the technical merits of the resting state paradigm. Indeed, fast and easy acquisitions are preferable to activation paradigms in clinical populations. Finally, we emphasize the need to validate the diagnostic and prognostic value of fMRI resting state measurements in non-communicating brain damaged patients.
default mode network; resting state networks; consciousness; sleep; anesthesia; coma; hypnosis
The aim of this study was to look for differences in the power spectra and in EEG connectivity measures between patients in the vegetative state (VS/UWS) and patients in the minimally conscious state (MCS).
The EEG of 31 patients was recorded and analyzed. Power spectra were obtained using modern multitaper methods. Three connectivity measures (coherence, the imaginary part of coherency and the phase lag index) were computed. Of the 31 patients, 21 were diagnosed as MCS and 10 as VS/UWS using the Coma Recovery Scale-Revised (CRS-R). EEG power spectra revealed differences between the two conditions. The VS/UWS patients showed increased delta power but decreased alpha power compared with the MCS patients. Connectivity measures were correlated with the CRS-R diagnosis; patients in the VS/UWS had significantly lower connectivity than MCS patients in the theta and alpha bands.
Standard EEG recorded in clinical conditions could be used as a tool to help the clinician in the diagnosis of disorders of consciousness.
connectivity; disorders of consciousness; imaginary part of coherency; minimally conscious state; phase lag index; vegetative state
Clinical diagnosis of disorders of consciousness (DOC) caused by brain injury poses great challenges since patients are often behaviorally unresponsive. A promising new approach towards objective DOC diagnosis may be offered by the analysis of ultra-slow (<0.1 Hz) spontaneous brain activity fluctuations measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the resting-state. Previous work has shown reduced functional connectivity within the “default network”, a subset of regions known to be deactivated during engaging tasks, which correlated with the degree of consciousness impairment. However, it remains unclear whether the breakdown of connectivity is restricted to the “default network”, and to what degree changes in functional connectivity can be observed at the single subject level. Here, we analyzed resting-state inter-hemispheric connectivity in three homotopic regions of interest, which could reliably be identified based on distinct anatomical landmarks, and were part of the “Extrinsic” (externally oriented, task positive) network (pre- and postcentral gyrus, and intraparietal sulcus). Resting-state fMRI data were acquired for a group of 11 healthy subjects and 8 DOC patients. At the group level, our results indicate decreased inter-hemispheric functional connectivity in subjects with impaired awareness as compared to subjects with intact awareness. Individual connectivity scores significantly correlated with the degree of consciousness. Furthermore, a single-case statistic indicated a significant deviation from the healthy sample in 5/8 patients. Importantly, of the three patients whose connectivity indices were comparable to the healthy sample, one was diagnosed as locked-in. Taken together, our results further highlight the clinical potential of resting-state connectivity analysis and might guide the way towards a connectivity measure complementing existing DOC diagnosis.
The underlying functional neuroanatomy of tinnitus remains poorly understood. Few studies have focused on functional cerebral connectivity changes in tinnitus patients. The aim of this study was to test if functional MRI “resting-state” connectivity patterns in auditory network differ between tinnitus patients and normal controls. Thirteen chronic tinnitus subjects and fifteen age-matched healthy controls were studied on a 3 tesla MRI. Connectivity was investigated using independent component analysis and an automated component selection approach taking into account the spatial and temporal properties of each component. Connectivity in extra-auditory regions such as brainstem, basal ganglia/NAc, cerebellum, parahippocampal, right prefrontal, parietal, and sensorimotor areas was found to be increased in tinnitus subjects. The right primary auditory cortex, left prefrontal, left fusiform gyrus, and bilateral occipital regions showed a decreased connectivity in tinnitus. These results show that there is a modification of cortical and subcortical functional connectivity in tinnitus encompassing attentional, mnemonic, and emotional networks. Our data corroborate the hypothesized implication of non-auditory regions in tinnitus physiopathology and suggest that various regions of the brain seem involved in the persistent awareness of the phenomenon as well as in the development of the associated distress leading to disabling chronic tinnitus.
Monitoring the level of consciousness in brain-injured patients with disorders of consciousness is crucial as it provides diagnostic and prognostic information. Behavioral assessment remains the gold standard for assessing consciousness but previous studies have shown a high rate of misdiagnosis. This study aimed to investigate the usefulness of electroencephalography (EEG) entropy measurements in differentiating unconscious (coma or vegetative) from minimally conscious patients.
Left fronto-temporal EEG recordings (10-minute resting state epochs) were prospectively obtained in 56 patients and 16 age-matched healthy volunteers. Patients were assessed in the acute (≤1 month post-injury; n=29) or chronic (>1 month post-injury; n=27) stage. The etiology was traumatic in 23 patients. Automated online EEG entropy calculations (providing an arbitrary value ranging from 0 to 91) were compared with behavioral assessments (Coma Recovery Scale-Revised) and outcome.
EEG entropy correlated with Coma Recovery Scale total scores (r=0.49). Mean EEG entropy values were higher in minimally conscious (73±19; mean and standard deviation) than in vegetative/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome patients (45±28). Receiver operating characteristic analysis revealed an entropy cut-off value of 52 differentiating acute unconscious from minimally conscious patients (sensitivity 89% and specificity 90%). In chronic patients, entropy measurements offered no reliable diagnostic information. EEG entropy measurements did not allow prediction of outcome.
User-independent time-frequency balanced spectral EEG entropy measurements seem to constitute an interesting diagnostic – albeit not prognostic – tool for assessing neural network complexity in disorders of consciousness in the acute setting. Future studies are needed before using this tool in routine clinical practice, and these should seek to improve automated EEG quantification paradigms in order to reduce the remaining false negative and false positive findings.
minimally conscious state
unresponsive wakefulness syndrome
Recent advances in the study of spontaneous brain activity have demonstrated activity patterns that emerge with no task performance or sensory stimulation; these discoveries hold promise for the study of higher-order associative network functionality. Additionally, such advances are argued to be relevant in pathological states, such as disorders of consciousness (DOC), i.e., coma, vegetative and minimally conscious states. Recent studies on resting state activity in DOC, measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques, show that functional connectivity is disrupted in the task-negative or the default mode network. However, the two main approaches employed in the analysis of resting state functional connectivity data (i.e., hypothesis-driven seed-voxel and data-driven independent component analysis) present multiple methodological difficulties, especially in non-collaborative DOC patients. Improvements in motion artifact removal and spatial normalization are needed before fMRI resting state data can be used as proper biomarkers in severe brain injury. However, we anticipate that such developments will boost clinical resting state fMRI studies, allowing for easy and fast acquisitions and ultimately improve the diagnosis and prognosis in the absence of DOC patients’ active collaboration in data acquisition.
functional magnetic resonance imaging
Communication and intentional behavior are supported by the brain's integrity at a structural and a functional level. When widespread loss of cerebral connectivity is brought about as a result of a severe brain injury, in many cases patients are not capable of conscious interactive behavior and are said to suffer from disorders of consciousness (e.g., coma, vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, minimally conscious states). This lesion paradigm has offered not only clinical insights, as how to improve diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, but also put forward scientific opportunities to study the brain's plastic abilities. We here review interventional and observational studies performed in severely brain-injured patients with regards to recovery of consciousness. The study of the recovered conscious brain (spontaneous and/or after surgical or pharmacologic interventions), suggests a link between some specific brain areas and the capacity of the brain to sustain conscious experience, challenging at the same time the notion of fixed temporal boundaries in rehabilitative processes. Altered functional connectivity, cerebral structural reorganization as well as behavioral amelioration after invasive treatments will be discussed as the main indices for plasticity in these challenging patients. The study of patients with chronic disorders of consciousness may, thus, provide further insights not only at a clinical level (i.e., medical management and rehabilitation) but also from a scientific-theoretical perspective (i.e., the brain's plastic abilities and the pursuit of the neural correlate of consciousness).
neural plasticity; recovery; unresponsive wakefulness syndrome; vegetative state; minimally conscious state; consciousness; functional neuroimaging; deep brain stimulation
The ‘default network’ is defined as a set of areas, encompassing posterior-cingulate/precuneus, anterior cingulate/mesiofrontal cortex and temporo-parietal junctions, that show more activity at rest than during attention-demanding tasks. Recent studies have shown that it is possible to reliably identify this network in the absence of any task, by resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging connectivity analyses in healthy volunteers. However, the functional significance of these spontaneous brain activity fluctuations remains unclear. The aim of this study was to test if the integrity of this resting-state connectivity pattern in the default network would differ in different pathological alterations of consciousness. Fourteen non-communicative brain-damaged patients and 14 healthy controls participated in the study. Connectivity was investigated using probabilistic independent component analysis, and an automated template-matching component selection approach. Connectivity in all default network areas was found to be negatively correlated with the degree of clinical consciousness impairment, ranging from healthy controls and locked-in syndrome to minimally conscious, vegetative then coma patients. Furthermore, precuneus connectivity was found to be significantly stronger in minimally conscious patients as compared with unconscious patients. Locked-in syndrome patient’s default network connectivity was not significantly different from controls. Our results show that default network connectivity is decreased in severely brain-damaged patients, in proportion to their degree of consciousness impairment. Future prospective studies in a larger patient population are needed in order to evaluate the prognostic value of the presented methodology.
Default mode; fMRI; coma; vegetative state; minimally conscious state
Assessment of visual fixation is commonly used in the clinical examination of patients with disorders of consciousness. However, different international guidelines seem to disagree whether fixation is compatible with the diagnosis of the vegetative state (i.e., represents "automatic" subcortical processing) or is a sufficient sign of consciousness and higher order cortical processing.
We here studied cerebral metabolism in ten patients with chronic post-anoxic encephalopathy and 39 age-matched healthy controls. Five patients were in a vegetative state (without fixation) and five presented visual fixation but otherwise showed all criteria typical of the vegetative state. Patients were matched for age, etiology and time since insult and were followed by repeated Coma Recovery Scale-Revised (CRS-R) assessments for at least 1 year. Sustained visual fixation was considered as present when the eyes refixated a moving target for more than 2 seconds as defined by CRS-R criteria.
Patients without fixation showed metabolic dysfunction in a widespread fronto-parietal cortical network (with only sparing of the brainstem and cerebellum) which was not different from the brain function seen in patients with visual fixation. Cortico-cortical functional connectivity with visual cortex showed no difference between both patient groups. Recovery rates did not differ between patients without or with fixation (none of the patients showed good outcome).
Our findings suggest that sustained visual fixation in (non-traumatic) disorders of consciousness does not necessarily reflect consciousness and higher order cortical brain function.
Recent studies in patients with disorders of consciousness (DOC) tend to support the view that awareness is not related to activity in a single brain region but to thalamo-cortical connectivity in the frontoparietal network. Functional neuroimaging studies have shown preserved albeit disconnected low-level cortical activation in response to external stimulation in patients in a “vegetative state” or unresponsive wakefulness syndrome. While activation of these “primary” sensory cortices does not necessarily reflect conscious awareness, activation in higher-order associative cortices in minimally conscious state patients seems to herald some residual perceptual awareness. PET studies have identified a metabolic dysfunction in a widespread frontoparietal “global neuronal workspace” in DOC patients including the midline default mode network (“intrinsic” system) and the lateral frontoparietal cortices or “extrinsic system.” Recent studies have investigated the relation of awareness to the functional connectivity within intrinsic and extrinsic networks, and with the thalami in both pathological and pharmacological coma. In brain damaged patients, connectivity in all default network areas was found to be non-linearly correlated with the degree of clinical consciousness impairment, ranging from healthy controls and locked-in syndrome to minimally conscious, vegetative, coma, and brain dead patients. Anesthesia-induced loss of consciousness was also shown to correlate with a global decrease in cortico-cortical and thalamo-cortical connectivity in both intrinsic and extrinsic networks, but not in auditory, or visual networks. In anesthesia, unconsciousness was also associated with a loss of cross-modal interactions between networks. These results suggest that conscious awareness critically depends on the functional integrity of thalamo-cortical and cortico-cortical frontoparietal connectivity within and between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” brain networks.
disorders of consciousness; connectivity; anesthesia; fMRI; PET; coma; default mode network; consciousness
Previously published studies have reported that up to 43% of patients with disorders of consciousness are erroneously assigned a diagnosis of vegetative state (VS). However, no recent studies have investigated the accuracy of this grave clinical diagnosis. In this study, we compared consensus-based diagnoses of VS and MCS to those based on a well-established standardized neurobehavioral rating scale, the JFK Coma Recovery Scale-Revised (CRS-R).
We prospectively followed 103 patients (55 ± 19 years) with mixed etiologies and compared the clinical consensus diagnosis provided by the physician on the basis of the medical staff's daily observations to diagnoses derived from CRS-R assessments performed by research staff. All patients were assigned a diagnosis of 'VS', 'MCS' or 'uncertain diagnosis.'
Of the 44 patients diagnosed with VS based on the clinical consensus of the medical team, 18 (41%) were found to be in MCS following standardized assessment with the CRS-R. In the 41 patients with a consensus diagnosis of MCS, 4 (10%) had emerged from MCS, according to the CRS-R. We also found that the majority of patients assigned an uncertain diagnosis by clinical consensus (89%) were in MCS based on CRS-R findings.
Despite the importance of diagnostic accuracy, the rate of misdiagnosis of VS has not substantially changed in the past 15 years. Standardized neurobehavioral assessment is a more sensitive means of establishing differential diagnosis in patients with disorders of consciousness when compared to diagnoses determined by clinical consensus.