Immediate, irreversible, posttraumatic coma: A review indicating that bilateral brainstem injury rather than widespread hemispheric damage is essential for its production

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Abstract

Traumatic brain injury may result in immediate long-lasting coma. Much attention has been given to predicting this outcome from the initial examination because these predictions can guide future treatment and interactions with the patient's family. Reports of diffuse axonal injury in these cases have ascribed the coma to widespread damage in the deep white matter that disconnects the hemispheres from the ascending arousal system (AAS). However, brainstem lesions are also present in such cases, and the AAS may be interrupted at the brainstem level. This review examines autopsy and imaging literature that assesses the presence, extent, and predictive value of lesions in both sites. The evidence suggests that diffuse injury to the deep white matter is not the usual cause of immediate long-lasting posttraumatic coma. Instead, brainstem lesions in the rostral pons or midbrain are almost always the cause but only if the lesions are bilateral. Moreover, recovery is possible if critical brainstem inputs to the AAS are spared. The precise localization of the latter is subject to ongoing investigation with advanced imaging techniques using magnets of very high magnetic gradients. Limited availability of this equipment plus the need to verify the findings continue to require meticulous autopsy examination.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)198-202
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology
Volume74
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - 28 Mar 2015

Keywords

  • Ascending arousal system
  • Brainstem
  • Coma
  • Diffuse axonal injury
  • Trauma
  • White matter.

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