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Prog Brain Res. 2005;150:457-71.

Using a hierarchical approach to investigate residual auditory cognition in persistent vegetative state.

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MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge CB2 2EF, UK.


Persistent vegetative state is arguably one of the least understood and most ethically troublesome neurological conditions in modern medicine. The term describes a rare disorder in which patients who emerge from coma appear to be awake, but show no signs of awareness. In recent years, a number of studies have demonstrated an important role for functional neuroimaging in the identification of residual cognitive function in patients meeting the clinical criteria for persistent vegetative state. Such studies, when successful, may be particularly useful where there is a concern about the accuracy of the diagnosis and the possibility that residual cognitive function has remained undetected. Unfortunately, functional neuroimaging in persistent vegetative state is extremely complex and subject to numerous methodological, clinical and theoretical difficulties. In this chapter, we argue that in order to most effectively define the degree and extent of preserved cognitive function in persistent vegetative state, a hierarchical approach to cognition is required. To illustrate this point, a series of functional neuroimaging paradigms in the auditory domain are described, which systematically increase in complexity in terms of the auditory and/or linguistic processes required and, therefore, the degree of preserved cognition that can be inferred from "normal" patterns of activation in persistent vegetative patients. Preliminary results in a small series of patients provide a strong basis for the systematic study of possible residual cognitive function in persistent vegetative state.

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