Emotional Processing of Personally Familiar Faces in the Vegetative State

Haggai Sharon*, Yotam Pasternak, Eti Ben Simon, Michal Gruberger, Nir Giladi, Ben Zion Krimchanski, David Hassin, Talma Hendler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background:The Vegetative State (VS) is a severe disorder of consciousness in which patients are awake but display no signs of awareness. Yet, recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have demonstrated evidence for covert awareness in VS patients by recording specific brain activations during a cognitive task. However, the possible existence of incommunicable subjective emotional experiences in VS patients remains largely unexplored. This study aimed to probe the question of whether VS patients retain a brain ability to selectively process external stimuli according to their emotional value and look for evidence of covert emotional awareness in patients.Methods and Findings:In order to explore these questions we employed the emotive impact of observing personally familiar faces, known to provoke specific perceptual as well as emotional brain activations. Four VS patients and thirteen healthy controls first underwent an fMRI scan while viewing pictures of non-familiar faces, personally familiar faces and pictures of themselves. In a subsequent imagery task participants were asked to actively imagine one of their parent's faces. Analyses focused on face and familiarity selective regional brain activations and inter-regional functional connectivity. Similar to controls, all patients displayed face selective brain responses with further limbic and cortical activations elicited by familiar faces. In patients as well as controls, Connectivity was observed between emotional, visual and face specific areas, suggesting aware emotional perception. This connectivity was strongest in the two patients who later recovered. Notably, these two patients also displayed selective amygdala activation during familiar face imagery, with one further exhibiting face selective activations, indistinguishable from healthy controls.Conclusions:Taken together, these results show that selective emotional processing can be elicited in VS patients both by external emotionally salient stimuli and by internal cognitive processes, suggesting the ability for covert emotional awareness of self and the environment in VS patients.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere74711
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number9
StatePublished - 25 Sep 2013


Dive into the research topics of 'Emotional Processing of Personally Familiar Faces in the Vegetative State'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this