Cortical lesions causing loss of consciousness are anticorrelated with the dorsal brainstem

Samuel B. Snider*, Joey Hsu, R. Ryan Darby, Danielle Cooke, David Fischer, Alexander L. Cohen, Jordan H. Grafman, Michael D. Fox

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Brain lesions can provide unique insight into the neuroanatomical substrate of human consciousness. For example, brainstem lesions causing coma map to a specific region of the tegmentum. Whether specific lesion locations outside the brainstem are associated with loss of consciousness (LOC) remains unclear. Here, we investigate the topography of cortical lesions causing prolonged LOC (N = 16), transient LOC (N = 91), or no LOC (N = 64). Using standard voxel lesion symptom mapping, no focus of brain damage was associated with LOC. Next, we computed the network of brain regions functionally connected to each lesion location using a large normative connectome dataset (N = 1,000). This technique, termed lesion network mapping, can test whether lesions causing LOC map to a connected brain circuit rather than one brain region. Connectivity between cortical lesion locations and an a priori coma-specific region of brainstem tegmentum was an independent predictor of LOC (B = 1.2, p =.004). Connectivity to the dorsal brainstem was the only predictor of LOC in a whole-brain voxel-wise analysis. This relationship was driven by anticorrelation (negative correlation) between lesion locations and the dorsal brainstem. The map of regions anticorrelated to the dorsal brainstem thus defines a distributed brain circuit that, when damaged, is most likely to cause LOC. This circuit showed a slight posterior predominance and had peaks in the bilateral claustrum. Our results suggest that cortical lesions causing LOC map to a connected brain circuit, linking cortical lesions that disrupt consciousness to brainstem sites that maintain arousal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1520-1531
Number of pages12
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number6
StatePublished - Apr 15 2020


  • brainstem
  • coma
  • functional connectivity
  • reticular activating system
  • traumatic brain injury

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Radiological and Ultrasound Technology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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