Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Adrian Owen


Little is known about whether residual cognitive function occurs in the earliest stages of brain injury. The overarching goal of the work presented in this dissertation was to elucidate the role of functional neuroimaging in assessing brain activity in critically ill patients. The overall objective was addressed in the following four empirical chapters: In Chapter 2, three versions of a hierarchically-designed auditory task were developed and their ability to detect various levels of auditory language processing was assessed in individual healthy participants. The same procedure was then applied in two acutely comatose patients. In Chapter 3, a hierarchical auditory task was employed in a heterogeneous cohort of acutely comatose patients. The results revealed that the level of auditory processing in coma may be predictive of subsequent functional recovery. In Chapter 4, two mental imagery paradigms were utilized to assess covert command-following in coma. The findings demonstrate, for the first time, preserved awareness in an acutely comatose patient. In Chapter 5, functional neuroimaging techniques were used for covert communication with two completely locked-in, critically ill patients. The results suggest that this methodology could be used as an augmentative communication tool to allow patients to be involved in their own medical decision-making. Taken together, the proceeding chapters of this work demonstrate that functional neuroimaging can detect preserved cognitive functions in some acutely comatose patients, which has both diagnostic and prognostic relevance. Moreover, these techniques may be extended even further to be used as a communication tool in critically ill patients.

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