For patients with disorders of consciousness such as coma, a vegetative state or a minimally conscious state, one challenge is to detect and assess the residual cognitive functions in their brains. Number processing and mental calculation are important brain functions but are difficult to detect in patients with disorders of consciousness using motor response-based clinical assessment scales such as the Coma Recovery Scale-Revised due to the patients' motor impairments and inability to provide sufficient motor responses for number- and calculation-based communication.
In this study, we presented a hybrid brain-computer interface that combines P300 and steady state visual evoked potentials to detect number processing and mental calculation in Han Chinese patients with disorders of consciousness. Eleven patients with disorders of consciousness who were in a vegetative state (n = 6) or in a minimally conscious state (n = 3) or who emerged from a minimally conscious state (n = 2) participated in the brain-computer interface-based experiment. During the experiment, the patients with disorders of consciousness were instructed to perform three tasks, i.e., number recognition, number comparison, and mental calculation, including addition and subtraction. In each experimental trial, an arithmetic problem was first presented. Next, two number buttons, only one of which was the correct answer to the problem, flickered at different frequencies to evoke steady state visual evoked potentials, while the frames of the two buttons flashed in a random order to evoke P300 potentials. The patients needed to focus on the target number button (the correct answer). Finally, the brain-computer interface system detected P300 and steady state visual evoked potentials to determine the button to which the patients attended, further presenting the results as feedback.
Two of the six patients who were in a vegetative state, one of the three patients who were in a minimally conscious state, and the two patients that emerged from a minimally conscious state achieved accuracies significantly greater than the chance level. Furthermore, P300 potentials and steady state visual evoked potentials were observed in the electroencephalography signals from the five patients.
Number processing and arithmetic abilities as well as command following were demonstrated in the five patients. Furthermore, our results suggested that through brain-computer interface systems, many cognitive experiments may be conducted in patients with disorders of consciousness, although they cannot provide sufficient behavioral responses.