What is coma?Coma, from the Greek word "koma," meaning deep sleep, is a state of extreme unresponsiveness, in which an individual exhibits no voluntary movement or behavior. Furthermore, in a deep coma, even painful stimuli (actions which, when performed on a healthy individual, result in reactions) are unable to affect any response, and normal reflexes may be lost. A coma is a profound state of unconsciousness. Patients are alive but unable to move or respond to their environment. There are several levels of coma and patients may, or may not, progress through them. The responsiveness of the brain
lessens as the coma deepens and when it becomes more profound, normal body reflexes are lost and the patient no longer responds even to pain. The chances of recovery depend on the severity of the underlying cause. It is unclear whether a deeper coma alone necessarily means a slimmer chance of recovery because some people in deep coma recover well while others in a so-called milder coma sometimes fail to improve."
Coma lies on a spectrum with other alterations in consciousness. The level of consciousness required by, for example, someone reading this passage lies at one extreme end of the spectrum, while complete brain death lies at the other end of the spectrum. In between are such states as obtundation, drowsiness, and stupor. All of these are conditions which, unlike coma, still allow the individual to respond to stimuli, although such a response may be brief and require stimulus of greater than normal intensity.
In order to understand the loss of function suffered by a comatose individual, it is necessary to first understand the important characteristics of the conscious state. Consciousness is defined by two fundamental elements: awareness and arousal. Awareness allows one to receive and process all the information communicated by the five senses, and thus relate to oneself and to the outside world. Awareness has both psychological and physiological components. The psychological component is governed by an individual's mind and mental processes. The physiological component refers to the functioning of an individual's brain, and therefore that brain's physical and chemical condition. Awareness is regulated by cortical areas within the cerebral hemispheres, the outermost layer of the brain which separates humans from other animals by allowing for greater intellectual functioning.
Arousal is regulated solely by physiological functioning and consists of more primitive responsiveness to the world, as demonstrated by predictable reflex (involuntary) responses to stimuli. Arousal is maintained by the reticular activating system (the RAS). This is not an anatomical area of the brain, but rather a network of structures (including the brainstem, the medulla, and the thalamus) and nerve pathways, which function together to produce and maintain arousal.