Intrinsic Brain Activity in Altered States of Consciousness

How Conscious Is the Default Mode of Brain Function?


Address for correspondence: Mélanie Boly, Cyclotron Research Center, B30, Allée du 6 août, Sart Tilman, 4000 Liège, Belgium.


Spontaneous brain activity has recently received increasing interest in the neuroimaging community. However, the value of resting-state studies to a better understanding of brain–behavior relationships has been challenged. That altered states of consciousness are a privileged way to study the relationships between spontaneous brain activity and behavior is proposed, and common resting-state brain activity features observed in various states of altered consciousness are reviewed. Early positron emission tomography studies showed that states of extremely low or high brain activity are often associated with unconsciousness. However, this relationship is not absolute, and the precise link between global brain metabolism and awareness remains yet difficult to assert. In contrast, voxel-based analyses identified a systematic impairment of associative frontoparieto–cingulate areas in altered states of consciousness, such as sleep, anesthesia, coma, vegetative state, epileptic loss of consciousness, and somnambulism. In parallel, recent functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have identified structured patterns of slow neuronal oscillations in the resting human brain. Similar coherent blood oxygen level–dependent (BOLD) systemwide patterns can also be found, in particular in the default-mode network, in several states of unconsciousness, such as coma, anesthesia, and slow-wave sleep. The latter results suggest that slow coherent spontaneous BOLD fluctuations cannot be exclusively a reflection of conscious mental activity, but may reflect default brain connectivity shaping brain areas of most likely interactions in a way that transcends levels of consciousness, and whose functional significance remains largely in the dark.