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J Neurol. 2011 Jul;258(7):1373-84. doi: 10.1007/s00415-011-6114-x. Epub 2011 Jun 16.

From unresponsive wakefulness to minimally conscious PLUS and functional locked-in syndromes: recent advances in our understanding of disorders of consciousness.

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Coma Science Group, Neurology Department and Cyclotron Research Centre, University Hospital and University of Liège, Liège, Belgium.


Functional neuroimaging and electrophysiology studies are changing our understanding of patients with coma and related states. Some severely brain damaged patients may show residual cortical processing in the absence of behavioural signs of consciousness. Given these new findings, the diagnostic errors and their potential effects on treatment as well as concerns regarding the negative associations intrinsic to the term vegetative state, the European Task Force on Disorders of Consciousness has recently proposed the more neutral and descriptive term unresponsive wakefulness syndrome. When vegetative/unresponsive patients show minimal signs of consciousness but are unable to reliably communicate the term minimally responsive or minimally conscious state (MCS) is used. MCS was recently subcategorized based on the complexity of patients' behaviours: MCS+ describes high-level behavioural responses (i.e., command following, intelligible verbalizations or non-functional communication) and MCS- describes low-level behavioural responses (i.e., visual pursuit, localization of noxious stimulation or contingent behaviour such as appropriate smiling or crying to emotional stimuli). Finally, patients who show non-behavioural evidence of consciousness or communication only measurable via para-clinical testing (i.e., functional MRI, positron emission tomography, EEG or evoked potentials) can be considered to be in a functional locked-in syndrome. An improved assessment of brain function in coma and related states is not only changing nosology and medical care but also offers a better-documented diagnosis and prognosis and helps to further identify the neural correlates of human consciousness.

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