Neuroanatomic connectivity of the human ascending arousal system critical to consciousness and its disorders

J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 2012 Jun;71(6):531-46. doi: 10.1097/NEN.0b013e3182588293.


The ascending reticular activating system (ARAS) mediates arousal, an essential component of human consciousness. Lesions of the ARAS cause coma, the most severe disorder of consciousness. Because of current methodological limitations, including of postmortem tissue analysis, the neuroanatomic connectivity of the human ARAS is poorly understood. We applied the advanced imaging technique of high angular resolution diffusion imaging (HARDI) to elucidate the structural connectivity of the ARAS in 3 adult human brains, 2 of which were imaged postmortem. High angular resolution diffusion imaging tractography identified the ARAS connectivity previously described in animals and also revealed novel human pathways connecting the brainstem to the thalamus, the hypothalamus, and the basal forebrain. Each pathway contained different distributions of fiber tracts from known neurotransmitter-specific ARAS nuclei in the brainstem. The histologically guided tractography findings reported here provide initial evidence for human-specific pathways of the ARAS. The unique composition of neurotransmitter-specific fiber tracts within each ARAS pathway suggests structural specializations that subserve the different functional characteristics of human arousal. This ARAS connectivity analysis provides proof of principle that HARDI tractography may affect the study of human consciousness and its disorders, including in neuropathologic studies of patients dying in coma and the persistent vegetative state.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Autopsy
  • Brain Stem / anatomy & histology
  • Brain Stem / pathology
  • Cadaver
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Consciousness Disorders / pathology*
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Dissection
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus / anatomy & histology
  • Hypothalamus / pathology
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology*
  • Neural Pathways / pathology*
  • Neuroanatomy
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology
  • Prosencephalon / anatomy & histology
  • Prosencephalon / pathology
  • Pyramidal Tracts / anatomy & histology
  • Pyramidal Tracts / pathology
  • Pyramidal Tracts / physiology
  • Thalamus / anatomy & histology
  • Thalamus / pathology


  • Neurotransmitter Agents