Electrophysiological investigations of brain function in coma, vegetative and minimally conscious patients

Rémy Lehembre, Olivia Gosseries, Zulay Lugo, Zayd Jedidi, Camille Chatelle, Bernard Sadzot, Steven Laureys, Quentin Noirhomme


Electroencephalographic activity in the context of disorders of consciousness is a swiss knife like tool that can evaluate different aspects of cognitive residual function, detect consciousness and provide a mean to communicate with the outside world without using muscular channels. Standard recordings in the neurological department offer a first global view of the electrogenesis of a patient and can spot abnormal epileptiform activity and therefore guide treatment. Although visual patterns have a prognosis value, they are not sufficient to provide a diagnosis between vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome (VS/UWS) and minimally conscious state (MCS) patients. Quantitative electroencephalography (qEEG) processes the data and retrieves features, not visible on the raw traces, which can then be classified. Current results using qEEG show that MCS can be differentiated from VS/UWS patients at the group level.

Event Related Potentials (ERP) are triggered by varying stimuli and reflect the time course of information processing related to the stimuli from low-level peripheral receptive structures to high-order associative cortices. It is hence possible to assess auditory, visual, or emotive pathways. Different stimuli elicit positive or negative components with different time signatures. The presence of these components when observed in passive paradigms is usually a sign of good prognosis but it cannot differentiate VS/UWS and MCS patients. Recently, researchers have developed active paradigms showing that the amplitude of the component is modulated when the subject’s attention is focused on a task during stimulus presentation.  Hence significant differences between ERPs of a patient in a passive compared to an active paradigm can be a proof of consciousness. An EEG-based brain-computer interface (BCI) can then be tested to provide the patient with a communication tool. BCIs have considerably improved the past two decades. However they are not easily adaptable to comatose patients as they can have visual or auditory impairments or different lesions affecting their EEG signal.

Future progress will require large databases of resting state-EEG and ERPs experiment of patients of different etiologies. This will allow the identification of specific patterns related to the diagnostic of consciousness. Standardized procedures in the use of BCIs will also be needed to find the most suited technique for each individual patient.        


electroencephalography, evoked related potential, brain computer interface, coma, vegetative state, unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, minimally conscious state, locked in syndrome

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.4449/aib.v150i2.1374


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