Reaching across the abyss: recent advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging and their potential relevance to disorders of consciousness

Andrea Soddu*, Melanie Boly, Yuval Nir, Quentin Noirhomme, Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, Athena Demertzi, Anat Arzi, Smadar Ovadia, Mario Stanziano, Michele Papa, Steven Laureys, Rafael Malach

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Disorders of consciousness (DOC) raise profound scientific, clinical, ethical, and philosophical issues. Growing knowledge on fundamental principles of brain organization in healthy individuals offers new opportunities for a better understanding of residual brain function in DOCs. We here discuss new perspectives derived from a recently proposed scheme of brain organization underlying consciousness in healthy individuals. In this scheme, thalamo-cortical networks can be divided into two, often antagonistic, global systems: (i) a system of externally oriented, sensory-motor networks (the "extrinsic" system); and (ii) a system of inward-oriented networks (the "intrinsic" or default system). According to this framework, four distinct mental states would be possible that could be relevant for understanding DOCs. In normal healthy volunteers and locked-in syndrome patients, a state of high functionality of both the extrinsic and intrinsic or default systems is expected - associated with full awareness of environment and self. In this case, mental imagery tasks combined with fMRI can be used to detect covert awareness in patients that are unable to communicate. According to the framework, two complementary states of system imbalance are also possible, in which one system is in a hyperfunctional state, while the other is hypoactive. Extrinsic system hyperfunction is expected to lead to a state of total sensory-motor "absorption" or "lost self." In contrast, intrinsic or default system hyperfunction is expected to lead to a state of complete detachment from the external world. A state where both extrinsic and intrinsic systems are hypofunctional is predicted to lead to markedly impaired consciousness as seen in DOCs. Finally, we review the potential use of ultra-slow fluctuations in BOLD signal as a tool for assessing the functional integrity of extrinsic and intrinsic systems during "resting state" fMRI acquisitions. In particular, we discuss the potential provided by assessment of these slow spontaneous BOLD fluctuations as a novel tool in assessing the cognitive state and chances of recovery from brain pathologies underlying DOCs.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)261-274
Number of pages14
JournalProgress in Brain Research
Issue numberC
StatePublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by ISF 160/07 and Minerva grants (RM), MIUR-Progetto FIRB Internazionalizzazione-RBIN04KW43 (AS), the European Commission (DISCOS, Mindbridge and COST), the McDonnell Foundation, the Mind Science Foundation, the Reine Elisabeth Medical Foundation, and University of Liège. M. Boly and S. Laureys are, respectively, Research Fellow and Senior Research Associate at the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research.


  • coma
  • consciousness
  • default network
  • functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • imagery
  • resting state
  • spontaneous activity


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