Naturalistic auditory stimuli with fNIRS prefrontal cortex imaging: A potential paradigm for disorder of consciousness diagnostics (a study with healthy participants)


Disorder of consciousness (DOC) is a devastating condition due to brain damage. A patient in this condition is non-responsive, but nevertheless might be conscious at least at some level. Determining the conscious level of DOC patients is important for both medical and ethical reasons, but reliably achieving this has been a major challenge. Naturalistic stimuli in combination with neuroimaging have been proposed as a promising approach for DOC patient diagnosis. Capitalizing on and extending this proposal, the goal of the present study conducted with healthy participants was to develop a new paradigm with naturalistic auditory stimuli and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) - an approach that can be used at the bedside. Twenty-four healthy participants passively listened to 9 min of auditory story, scrambled auditory story, classical music, and scrambled classical music segments while their prefrontal cortex activity was recorded using fNIRS. We found much higher intersubject correlation (ISC) during story compared to scrambled story conditions both at the group level and in the majority of individual subjects, suggesting that fNIRS imaging of the prefrontal cortex might be a sensitive method to capture neural changes associated with narrative comprehension. In contrast, the ISC during the classical music segment did not differ reliably from scrambled classical music and was also much lower than the story condition. Our main result is that naturalistic auditory stories with fNIRS might be used in a clinical setup to identify high-level processing and potential consciousness in DOC patients.