Journal Article

Autonomic correlates of seeing one’s own face in patients with disorders of consciousness

Sergio Bagnato, Cristina Boccagni, Caterina Prestandrea and Giuseppe Galardi

in Neuroscience of Consciousness

Published on behalf of Neuroscience

Volume 2015, issue 1
Published online July 2015 | e-ISSN: 2057-2107 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/nc/niv005

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  • Neuroscience
  • Cognition and Behavioural Neuroscience
  • Neuroscientific Techniques
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Consciousness

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The ability to recognize one’s own face is a hallmark of self-awareness. In healthy subjects, the sympathetic skin response evoked by self-face recognition has a greater area under the curve of the signal than responses evoked by other visual stimuli. We evaluated the sympathetic skin responses evoked by self-face images and by six other visual stimuli (conditions) in 15 patients with severe disorders of consciousness and in 15 age-matched healthy subjects. Under all conditions, the evoked area of the sympathetic skin response was smaller in patients with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, intermediate in patients in a minimally conscious state, and greater in healthy subjects. In patients with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, no differences were found between the sympathetic skin response area evoked by self-face images and those evoked by other conditions. In patients in a minimally conscious state, the area of the sympathetic skin response evoked by self-face presentation was greater than those evoked by other conditions, even if statistical significance was reached only in the comparison to other stimuli not involving a real face. This finding may be due to the inability of these patients to differentiate their own face from those of others. Taken together, these results probably reflect a varying level of self-awareness between patients with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome and patients in a minimally conscious state, and suggest that the autonomic correlate of self-awareness may have some diagnostic implications for these patients.

Keywords: autonomic nervous system; minimally conscious state; sympathetic skin response; unresponsive wakefulness syndrome; vegetative state.

Journal Article.  5274 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Neuroscience ; Cognition and Behavioural Neuroscience ; Neuroscientific Techniques ; Cognitive Neuroscience ; Consciousness

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