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Human Brain Mapping





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Previous studies have suggested that disorders of consciousness (DOC) after severe brain injury may result from disconnections of the thalamo-cortical system. However, thalamo-cortical connectivity differences between vegetative state (VS), minimally conscious state minus (MCS−, i.e., low-level behavior such as visual pursuit), and minimally conscious state plus (MCS+, i.e., high-level behavior such as language processing) remain unclear. Probabilistic tractography in a sample of 25 DOC patients was employed to assess whether structural connectivity in various thalamo-cortical circuits could differentiate between VS, MCS−, and MCS+ patients. First, the thalamus was individually segmented into seven clusters based on patterns of cortical connectivity and tested for univariate differences across groups. Second, reconstructed whole-brain thalamic tracks were used as features in a multivariate searchlight analysis to identify regions along the tracks that were most informative in distinguishing among groups. At the univariate level, it was found that VS patients displayed reduced connectivity in most thalamo-cortical circuits of interest, including frontal, temporal, and sensorimotor connections, as compared with MCS+, but showed more pulvinar-occipital connections when compared with MCS−. Moreover, MCS− exhibited significantly less thalamo-premotor and thalamo-temporal connectivity than MCS+. At the multivariate level, it was found that thalamic tracks reaching frontal, parietal, and sensorimotor regions, could discriminate, up to 100% accuracy, across each pairwise group comparison. Together, these findings highlight the role of thalamo-cortical connections in patients' behavioral profile and level of consciousness. Diffusion tensor imaging combined with machine learning algorithms could thus potentially facilitate diagnostic distinctions in DOC and shed light on the neural correlates of consciousness. Hum Brain Mapp 38:431–443, 2017. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.