For accurate diagnosis and prognostic prediction of acquired brain injury (ABI), it is crucial to understand the neurobiological mechanisms underlying loss of consciousness. However, there is no consensus on which regions and networks act as biomarkers for consciousness level and recovery outcome in ABI. Using resting-state fMRI, we assessed intrinsic functional connectivity strength (FCS) of whole-brain networks in a large sample of 99 ABI patients with varying degrees of consciousness loss (including fully preserved consciousness state, minimally conscious state, unresponsive wakefulness syndrome/vegetative state, and coma) and 34 healthy control subjects. Consciousness level was evaluated using the Glasgow Coma Scale and Coma Recovery Scale-Revised on the day of fMRI scanning; recovery outcome was assessed using the Glasgow Outcome Scale 3 months after the fMRI scanning. One-way ANOVA of FCS, Spearman correlation analyses between FCS and the consciousness level and recovery outcome, and FCS-based multivariate pattern analysis were performed. We found decreased FCS with loss of consciousness primarily distributed in the posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus (PCC/PCU), medial prefrontal cortex, and lateral parietal cortex. The FCS values of these regions were significantly correlated with consciousness level and recovery outcome. Multivariate support vector machine discrimination analysis revealed that the FCS patterns predicted whether patients with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome/vegetative state and coma would regain consciousness with an accuracy of 81.25%, and the most discriminative region was the PCC/PCU. These findings suggest that intrinsic functional connectivity patterns of the human posteromedial cortex could serve as a potential indicator for consciousness level and recovery outcome in individuals with ABI.
Significance statement: Varying degrees of consciousness loss and recovery are commonly observed in acquired brain injury patients, yet the underlying neurobiological mechanisms remain elusive. Using a large sample of patients with varying degrees of consciousness loss, we demonstrate that intrinsic functional connectivity strength in many brain regions, especially in the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus, significantly correlated with consciousness level and recovery outcome. We further demonstrate that the functional connectivity pattern of these regions can predict patients with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome/vegetative state and coma would regain consciousness with an accuracy of 81.25%. Our study thus provides potentially important biomarkers of acquired brain injury in clinical diagnosis, prediction of recovery outcome, and decision making for treatment strategies for patients with severe loss of consciousness.
Keywords: acquired brain injury; hub; posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus; prediction; recovery outcome; resting state fMRI.
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