A perturbational approach for evaluating the brain's capacity for consciousness

Marcello Massimini, Melanie Boly, Adenauer Casali, Mario Rosanova, Giulio Tononi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do we evaluate a brain's capacity to sustain conscious experience if the subject does not manifest purposeful behaviour and does not respond to questions and commands? What should we measure in this case? An emerging idea in theoretical neuroscience is that what really matters for consciousness in the brain is not activity levels, access to sensory inputs or neural synchronization per se, but rather the ability of different areas of the thalamocortical system to interact causally with each other to form an integrated whole. In particular, the information integration theory of consciousness (IITC) argues that consciousness is integrated information and that the brain should be able to generate consciousness to the extent that it has a large repertoire of available states (information), yet it cannot be decomposed into a collection of causally independent subsystems (integration). To evaluate the ability to integrate information among distributed cortical regions, it may not be sufficient to observe the brain in action. Instead, it is useful to employ a perturbational approach and examine to what extent different regions of the thalamocortical system can interact causally (integration) and produce specific responses (information). Thanks to a recently developed technique, transcranial magnetic stimulation and high-density electroencephalography (TMS/hd-EEG), one can record the immediate reaction of the entire thalamocortical system to controlled perturbations of different cortical areas. In this chapter, using sleep as a model of unconsciousness, we show that TMS/hd-EEG can detect clear-cut changes in the ability of the thalamocortical system to integrate information when the level of consciousness fluctuates across the sleep-wake cycle. Based on these results, we discuss the potential applications of this novel technique to evaluate objectively the brain's capacity for consciousness at the bedside of brain-injured patients.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-214
Number of pages14
JournalProgress in Brain Research
Issue numberC
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • coma
  • consciousness
  • electroencephalography
  • information
  • integration
  • transcranial magnetic stimulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

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