Neuropathological findings in the brain of Karen Ann Quinlan. The role of the thalamus in the persistent vegetative state

N Engl J Med. 1994 May 26;330(21):1469-75. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199405263302101.


Background: Karen Ann Quinlan had a cardiopulmonary arrest in 1975 and died 10 years later, having never regained consciousness. Her story prompted a national debate about the appropriateness of life-sustaining treatment in patients who are in a persistent vegetative state and led to the development of medicolegal guidelines for the care of such patients. This report describes the neuropathologic features of Quinlan's brain.

Methods: The entire brain and spinal cord were systematically sampled for histologic examination. The brain stem and central cerebrum were embedded en bloc and serially sectioned. Three-dimensional computer reconstructions helped visualize the topographic features of the lesions.

Results: Contrary to expectation, the most severe damage was not in the cerebral cortex but in the thalamus, and the brain stem was relatively intact. The neuropathological findings included extensive bilateral thalamic scarring, bilateral cortical scars primarily in the occipital pole and parasagittal parieto-occipital region, and bilateral damage to cerebellar and focal-basal-ganglia regions. The brain stem and basal forebrain and the hypothalamic components of the ascending arousal systems and brainstem regions critical to cardiac and respiratory control were undamaged. The lesions were consistent with hypoxia-ischemia after the cardiopulmonary arrest.

Conclusions: Although the neuropathological findings in the case of Karen Ann Quinlan were complex, the disproportionately severe damage in the thalamus as compared with the cerebral cortex supports the hypothesis that the thalamus is critical for cognition and awareness and may be less essential for arousal.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Case Reports
  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Atrophy / pathology
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Ischemia / pathology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Coma / pathology*
  • Coma / physiopathology
  • Female
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia, Brain / pathology
  • Spinal Cord / pathology
  • Thalamus / pathology*
  • Thalamus / physiopathology

Personal name as subject

  • K A Quinlan