Background The differential diagnosis of disorders of consciousness is challenging. The rate of misdiagnosis is approximately 40%, and new methods are required to complement bedside testing, particularly if the patient's capacity to show behavioral signs of awareness is diminished.
Methods At two major referral centers in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Liege, Belgium, we performed a study involving 54 patients with disorders of consciousness. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess each patient's ability to generate willful, neuroanatomically specific, blood-oxygenation-level–dependentresponses during two established mental-imagery tasks. A technique was then developed to determine whether such tasks could be used to communicate yes-or-no answers to simple questions.
Results Of the 54 patients enrolled in the study, 5 were able to willfully modulate their brain activity. In three of these patients, additional bedside testing revealed some sign of awareness, but in the other two patients, no voluntary behavior could be detected by means of clinical assessment. One patient was able to use our technique to answer yes or no to questions during functional MRI; however, it remained impossible to establish any form of communication at the bedside.