Single unit activities recorded in the thalamus and the overlying parietal cortex of subjects affected by disorders of consciousness

Lorenzo Magrassi, Antonio G. Zippo, Alberto Azzalin, Stefano Bastianello, Roberto Imberti, Gabriele E.M. Biella

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The lack of direct neurophysiological recordings from the thalamus and the cortex hampers our understanding of vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome and minimally conscious state in humans. We obtained microelectrode recordings from the thalami and the homolateral parietal cortex of two vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome and one minimally conscious state patients during surgery for implantation of electrodes in both thalami for chronic deep brain stimulation. We found that activity of the thalamo-cortical networks differed among the two conditions. There were half the number of active neurons in the thalami of patients in vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome than in minimally conscious state. Coupling of thalamic neuron discharge with EEG phases also differed in the two conditions and thalamo-cortical cross-frequency coupling was limited to the minimally conscious state patient. When consciousness is physiologically or pharmacologically reversibly suspended there is a significant increase in bursting activity of the thalamic neurons. By contrast, in the thalami of our patients in both conditions fewer than 17% of the recorded neurons showed bursting activity. This indicates that these conditions differ from physiological suspension of consciousness and that increased thalamic inhibition is not prominent. Our findings, albeit obtained in a limited number of patients, unveil the neurophysiology of these conditions at single unit resolution and might be relevant for inspiring novel therapeutic options.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0205967
JournalPLoS One
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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