Background: Mechanisms of anesthesia-induced loss of consciousness remain poorly understood. Resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging allows investigating whole-brain connectivity changes during pharmacological modulation of the level of consciousness.
Methods: Low-frequency spontaneous blood oxygen level-dependent fluctuations were measured in 19 healthy volunteers during wakefulness, mild sedation, deep sedation with clinical unconsciousness, and subsequent recovery of consciousness.
Results: Propofol-induced decrease in consciousness linearly correlates with decreased corticocortical and thalamocortical connectivity in frontoparietal networks (i.e., default- and executive-control networks). Furthermore, during propofol-induced unconsciousness, a negative correlation was identified between thalamic and cortical activity in these networks. Finally, negative correlations between default network and lateral frontoparietal cortices activity, present during wakefulness, decreased proportionally to propofol-induced loss of consciousness. In contrast, connectivity was globally preserved in low-level sensory cortices, (i.e., in auditory and visual networks across sedation stages). This was paired with preserved thalamocortical connectivity in these networks. Rather, waning of consciousness was associated with a loss of cross-modal interactions between visual and auditory networks.
Conclusions: Our results shed light on the functional significance of spontaneous brain activity fluctuations observed in functional magnetic resonance imaging. They suggest that propofol-induced unconsciousness could be linked to a breakdown of cerebral temporal architecture that modifies both within- and between-network connectivity and thus prevents communication between low-level sensory and higher-order frontoparietal cortices, thought to be necessary for perception of external stimuli. They emphasize the importance of thalamocortical connectivity in higher-order cognitive brain networks in the genesis of conscious perception.