Disorders of consciousness
Disorders of consciousness are medical conditions that inhibit consciousness. Some define disorders of consciousness as any change from complete self-awareness to inhibited or absent self-awareness. This category generally includes minimally conscious state and persistent vegetative state, but sometimes also includes the less severe locked-in syndrome and more severe chronic coma. Differential diagnosis of these disorders is an active area of biomedical research. Finally, brain death results in an irreversible disruption of consciousness. While other conditions may cause a moderate deterioration (e.g., dementia and delirium) or transient interruption (e.g., grand mal and petit mal seizures) of consciousness, they are not included in this category.
In locked-in syndrome the patient has awareness, sleep-wake cycles, and meaningful behavior (viz., eye-movement), but is isolated due to quadriplegia and pseudobulbar palsy. Locked-in syndrome is a condition in which a patient is aware and awake but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes. Total locked-in syndrome is a version of locked-in syndrome where the eyes are paralyzed as well.
Minimally conscious state
In a minimally conscious state, the patient has intermittent periods of awareness and wakefulness and displays some meaningful behavior.
Persistent vegetative state
In a persistent vegetative state, the patient has sleep-wake cycles, but lacks awareness and only displays reflexive and non-purposeful behavior. It is a diagnosis of some uncertainty in that it deals with a syndrome. After four weeks in a vegetative state (VS), the patient is classified as in a persistent vegetative state. This diagnosis is classified as a permanent vegetative state (PVS) after approximately 1 year of being in a vegetative state.
In chronic coma the patient lacks awareness and sleep-wake cycles and only displays reflexive behavior. In medicine, a coma (from the Greek κῶμα koma, meaning deep sleep) is a state of unconsciousness, lasting more than six hours in which a person cannot be awakened, fails to respond normally to painful stimuli, light, sound, lacks a normal sleep-wake cycle and does not initiate voluntary actions. A person in a state of coma is described as comatose. Although, according to the Glasgow Coma Scale, a person with confusion is considered to be in the mildest coma.
Although a coma patient may appear to be awake, they are unable to consciously feel, speak, hear, or move. For a patient to maintain consciousness, two important neurological components must function impeccably. The first is the cerebral cortex which is the gray matter covering the outer layer of the brain. The other is a structure located in the brainstem, called reticular activating system (RAS or ARAS). Injury to either or both of these components is sufficient to cause a patient to experience a coma.
Brain death is the irreversible end of all brain activity, and function (including involuntary activity necessary to sustain life). The main cause is total necrosis of the cerebral neurons following loss of brain oxygenation. After brain death the patient lacks any sense of awareness; sleep-wake cycles or behavior, and typically look as if they are dead or are in a deep sleep-state or coma. Although visually similar to a comatose state such as persistent vegetative state, the two should not be confused. Patients classified as brain dead are legally dead and can qualify as organ donors, in which their organs are surgically removed and prepared for a particular recipient.
Brain death is one of the deciding factors when pronouncing a trauma patient as dead. Determining function and presence of necrosis after trauma to the whole brain or brain-stem may be used to determine brain death, and is used in many states in the US.
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