Abstract in English:Introduction. A number of studies highlight the difficulty in forming a diagnosis for patients with disorders of consciousness when this is established merely on behavioral assessments. Background. Positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), and electroencephalography combined with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS-EEG) techniques are promoting the clinical characterization of this challenging population. With such technology-based "objective" tools, patients are also differentially able to follow simple commands and in some cases even communicate through modified brain activity. Consequently, the vegetative state and minimally conscious state have been revised and new nosologies have been proposed, namely the unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, the minimally conscious state plus and minus, and the functional locked-in syndrome. Aim. To our mind, an integration of different technical modalities is important to gain a holistic vision of the underlying pathophysiology of disorders of consciousness in general and to promote single-patient medical management in particular.
Abstract in English:The directive 2001/20/UE and the research involving patients with docs. Research involving patients with disorders of consciousness (DOCs) deserves special ethical and legal attention because of its Janus-faced nature. On the one hand, it raises concerns about the risk to expose the involved subjects to disproportionate risks not respecting their individual dignity, particularly their right to be cared for; on the other hand, research is an essential tool in order to improve the clinical condition of patients with DOCs. The present paper concerns the ethical and legal dimensions of biomedical research involving patients with disorders of consciousness. In particular, it focuses on informed consent to experimental treatments, which is a challenging issue both from an ethical and legal point of view. The first part reads the Directive 2001/20/EU in the light of the experimentation of patients with DOCs, and suggests a revision in order to better assess the issue of informed consent. The particular case of informed consent for observational studies of non-communicative patients. The second part presents an informed consent form for studies through video-recording of patients unable to communicate their own consent. This form has been elaborated by the bioethics unit of the project "Review of the nosography of vegetative states: application of methods of behavioral analysis to individuals in coma or vegetative state" developed at the Italian National Institute of Health. Relevance of the suggested form. The paper describes the conceptual framework of the form for informed consent to studies through video-recoding, which is a relevant example of what issues should be included in an informed consent for any type of studies through video-recording of patients unable to express their own consent. The article has been sent on November the 7th 2013, before the adoption of the Regulation (EU) no. 536/2014 (and consequent abrogation of the Directive 2001/20/EU) and the release of the new edition of the Italian Code of Medical Ethics.
Abstract in English:Difficulties of behavioral assessment of consciousness. An astonishingly high rate of misdiagnosis between vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome and minimally conscious state has been detected. This raises the issue of the adequacy of the consciousness' assessment in patients with disorders of consciousness. The behavioral assessment of consciousness could be not able to detect covert awareness, which is increasingly identified by the instrumental assessment. Ancillary methods. Neurotechnology, particularly neuroimaging, provides relevant data concerning the neurological underlying condition of patients with DOCs, but the instrumental approach has still to assess some technical issues. Ethical considerations. A correct diagnosis of a DOC is not only an instrumental issue, but also an ethically relevant demand to the scientific community. Finally, an integration between behavioral and instrumental assessments seems to be the most adequate strategy in order to decrease the rate of misdiagnosis.
Abstract in English:Introduction. The paper describes the evolution of knowledge concerning severe brain injury which determines the Vegetative State/Unresponsive Wakefulness Syndrome. Background. The term Vegetative State was proposed by Jennet and Plum in 1972. Later on, the Intensive Care Units progresses increased the survival of these patients and, contemporary, decreased their characteristic conditions of cachexia and severe dystonia. In 1994, the disease was conceived as a disconnection syndrome of the hemispheres from the brainstem, mainly due to a temporary or permanent deficit of the functions of the white matter. From 2005 on, the psychophysiological parameters relative to an emotional consciousness, albeit submerged, were described. Since then, it has been recognized that the brain of these patients was not only to be considered living but also working. Conclusion. The latest studies that have greatly improved the knowledge of the physiopathology of this particular state of consciousness. These new insights have led to the formation of a European Union Task Force, which has proposed in 2009 to change the name from a Vegetative State to Unresponsive Wakefulness Syndrome, outlining the character of syndrome and not that of state, as forms of even late recovery in consciousness levels have been observed and described.
Abstract in English:Brain damage of various aetiologies can lead to different disorders of consciousness (DOC), varying from coma to vegetative, to minimally conscious states. Each state is characterised by a different degree of wakefulness, awareness, pain sensitivity and is differentially handled with respect to treatment, ethical considerations and end-of-life decisions. Thus, its correct identification is crucial while devising or modulating appropriate treatment strategies. Actually, the main coma scales cannot always accurately determine the state of consciousness of an individual, while other tools (e.g. imaging techniques) present a certain degree of uncertainty. A complementary approach may be constituted by a 24-hour observation of patients, for a sufficient period of days, using an ad hoc behavioural scale, further correlated with physiological and pharmacological parameters measured on patients. The method herein described might help recognising the presence of consciousness of the different DOC patients, and thus discerning a vegetative from a minimally conscious state.