Covert Consciousness in Acute Brain Injury Revealed by Automated Pupillometry and Cognitive Paradigms

Marwan H Othman, Markus Harboe Olsen, Karen Irgens Tanderup Hansen, Moshgan Amiri, Helene Ravnholt Jensen, Benjamin Nyholm, Kirsten Møller, Jesper Kjaergaard, Daniel Kondziella*

*Corresponding author af dette arbejde


BACKGROUND: Identifying covert consciousness in intensive care unit (ICU) patients with coma and other disorders of consciousness (DoC) is crucial for treatment decisions, but sensitive low-cost bedside markers are missing. We investigated whether automated pupillometry combined with passive and active cognitive paradigms can detect residual consciousness in ICU patients with DoC.

METHODS: We prospectively enrolled clinically low-response or unresponsive patients with traumatic or nontraumatic DoC from ICUs of a tertiary referral center. Age-matched and sex-matched healthy volunteers served as controls. Patients were categorized into clinically unresponsive (coma or unresponsive wakefulness syndrome) or clinically low-responsive (minimally conscious state or better). Using automated pupillometry, we recorded pupillary dilation to passive (visual and auditory stimuli) and active (mental arithmetic) cognitive paradigms, with task-specific success criteria (e.g., ≥ 3 of 5 pupillary dilations on five consecutive mental arithmetic tasks).

RESULTS: We obtained 699 pupillometry recordings at 178 time points from 91 ICU patients with brain injury (mean age 60 ± 13.8 years, 31% women, and 49.5% nontraumatic brain injuries). Recordings were also obtained from 26 matched controls (59 ± 14.8 years, 38% women). Passive paradigms yielded limited distinctions between patients and controls. However, active paradigms enabled discrimination between different states of consciousness. With mental arithmetic of moderate complexity, ≥ 3 pupillary dilations were seen in 17.8% of clinically unresponsive patients and 50.0% of clinically low-responsive patients (odds ratio 4.56, 95% confidence interval 2.09-10.10; p < 0.001). In comparison, 76.9% healthy controls responded with ≥ 3 pupillary dilations (p = 0.028). Results remained consistent across sensitivity analyses using different thresholds for success. Spearman's rank analysis underscored the robust association between pupillary dilations during mental arithmetic and consciousness levels (rho = 1, p = 0.017). Notably, one behaviorally unresponsive patient demonstrated persistent command-following behavior 2 weeks before overt signs of awareness, suggesting prolonged cognitive motor dissociation.

CONCLUSIONS: Automated pupillometry combined with mental arithmetic can identify cognitive efforts, and hence covert consciousness, in ICU patients with acute DoC.

TidsskriftNeurocritical Care
StatusE-pub ahead of print - 11 apr. 2024


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