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Neuroimage Clin. 2013 Oct 16;3:450-61. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2013.10.008. eCollection 2013.

Dissociable endogenous and exogenous attention in disorders of consciousness.

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1
Division of Neurosurgery, University of Cambridge, Box 167, Level 4, A Block, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 0QQ, UK ; Medical Research Council, Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge CB2 7EF, UK.

Abstract

Recent research suggests that despite the seeming inability of patients in vegetative and minimally conscious states to generate consistent behaviour, some might possess covert awareness detectable with functional neuroimaging. These findings motivate further research into the cognitive mechanisms that might support the existence of consciousness in these states of profound neurological dysfunction. One of the key questions in this regard relates to the nature and capabilities of attention in patients, known to be related to but distinct from consciousness. Previous assays of the electroencephalographic P300 marker of attention have demonstrated its presence and potential clinical value. Here we analysed data from 21 patients and 8 healthy volunteers collected during an experimental task designed to engender exogenous or endogenous attention, indexed by the P3a and P3b components, respectively, in response to a pair of word stimuli presented amongst distractors. Remarkably, we found that the early, bottom-up P3a and the late, top-down P3b could in fact be dissociated in a patient who fitted the behavioural criteria for the vegetative state. In juxtaposition with healthy volunteers, the patient's responses suggested the presence of a relatively high level of attentional abilities despite the absence of any behavioural indications thereof. Furthermore, we found independent evidence of covert command following in the patient, as measured by functional neuroimaging during tennis imagery. Three other minimally conscious patients evidenced non-discriminatory bottom-up orienting, but no top-down engagement of selective attentional control. Our findings present a persuasive case for dissociable attentional processing in behaviourally unresponsive patients, adding to our understanding of the possible levels and applications of consequent conscious awareness.

KEYWORDS:

Attention; Consciousness; Electroencephalography; Minimally conscious state; Vegetative state

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