Life can be worth living in locked-in syndrome

Prog Brain Res. 2009:177:339-51. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(09)17723-3.


The locked-in syndrome (LIS) describes patients who are awake and conscious but severely deefferented leaving the patient in a state of almost complete immobility and loss of verbal communication. The etiology ranges from acute (e.g., brainstem stroke, which is the most frequent cause of LIS) to chronic causes (e.g., amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; ALS). In this article we review and present new data on the psychosocial adjustment to LIS. We refer to quality of life (QoL) and the degree of depressive symptoms as a measure of psychosocial adjustment. Various studies suggest that despite their extreme motor impairment, a significant number of LIS patients maintain a good QoL that seems unrelated to their state of physical functioning. Likewise, depression is not predicted by the physical state of the patients. A successful psychological adjustment to the disease was shown to be related to problem-oriented coping strategies, like seeking for information, and emotional coping strategies like denial--the latter may, nevertheless, vary with disease stage. Perceived social support seems to be the strongest predictor of psychosocial adjustment. QoL in LIS patients is often in the same range as in age-matched healthy individuals. Interestingly, there is evidence that significant others, like primary caregivers or spouses, rate LIS patients' QoL significantly lower than the patients themselves. With regard to depressed mood, ALS patients without symptoms focus significantly more often on internal factors that can be retained in the course of the disease contrary to patients with depressive symptoms who preferably name external factors as very important, such as health, which will degrade in the course of the disease. Typically, ALS patients with a higher degree of depressive symptoms experience significantly less "very pleasant" situations. The herein presented data strongly question the assumption among doctors, health-care workers, lay persons, and politicians that severe motor disability necessarily is intolerable and leads to end-of-life decisions or euthanasia. Existing evidence supports that biased clinicians provide less-aggressive medical treatment in LIS patients. Thus, psychological treatment for depression, effective strategies for coping with the disease, and support concerning the maintenance of the social network are needed to cope with the disease. Novel communication devices and assistive technology now offers an increasing number of LIS patients to resume a meaningful life and an active role in society.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Consciousness Disorders / complications
  • Consciousness Disorders / psychology*
  • Depression / etiology
  • Depression / psychology
  • Disabled Persons / psychology
  • Humans
  • Quadriplegia / complications
  • Quadriplegia / psychology*
  • Quality of Life*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires