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This article is part of the Research Topic Consciousness and neural plasticity

Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 07 February 2011 | http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00245

Neural plasticity lessons from disorders of consciousness

Athena Demertzi, Caroline Schnakers, Andrea Soddu, Marie-Aurélie Bruno, Olivia Gosseries, Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse and Steven Laureys*
  • Coma Science Group, Cyclotron Research Centre and Neurology Department, Sart Tilman, University and University Hospital of Liège, Liège, Belgium

Communication and intentional behavior are supported by the brain’s integrity at a structural and a functional level. When widespread loss of cerebral connectivity is brought about as a result of a severe brain injury, in many cases patients are not capable of conscious interactive behavior and are said to suffer from disorders of consciousness (e.g., coma, vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, minimally conscious states). This lesion paradigm has offered not only clinical insights, as how to improve diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, but also put forward scientific opportunities to study the brain’s plastic abilities. We here review interventional and observational studies performed in severely brain-injured patients with regards to recovery of consciousness. The study of the recovered conscious brain (spontaneous and/or after surgical or pharmacologic interventions), suggests a link between some specific brain areas and the capacity of the brain to sustain conscious experience, challenging at the same time the notion of fixed temporal boundaries in rehabilitative processes. Altered functional connectivity, cerebral structural reorganization as well as behavioral amelioration after invasive treatments will be discussed as the main indices for plasticity in these challenging patients. The study of patients with chronic disorders of consciousness may, thus, provide further insights not only at a clinical level (i.e., medical management and rehabilitation) but also from a scientific-theoretical perspective (i.e., the brain’s plastic abilities and the pursuit of the neural correlate of consciousness).

Keywords: neural plasticity, recovery, unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, vegetative state, minimally conscious state, consciousness, functional neuroimaging, deep brain stimulation

Citation: Demertzi A, Schnakers C, Soddu A, Bruno M-A, Gosseries O, Vanhaudenhuyse A and Laureys S (2010) Neural plasticity lessons from disorders of consciousness. Front. Psychology 1:245. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00245

Received: 16 October 2010; Paper pending published: 19 November 2010;
Accepted: 24 December 2010; Published online: 07 February 2011.

Edited by:

Morten Overgaard, Aarhus University, Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark

Reviewed by:

Ryota Kanai, University College London, UK
Jessica Saenger, Heinrich-Heine-University of Düsseldorf, Germany

Copyright: © 2011 Demertzi, Schnakers, Soddu, Bruno, Gosseries, Vanhaudenhuyse and Laureys. This is an open-access article subject to an exclusive license agreement between the authors and Frontiers Media SA, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original authors and source are credited.

*Correspondence: Steven Laureys, Cyclotron Research Center, Allée du 6 août No. 8, Sart Tilman B30, 4000 Liège, Belgium. e-mail: steven.laureys@ulg.ac.be