Preserved fractal character of structural brain networks is associated with covert consciousness after severe brain injury.


Self-similarity is ubiquitous throughout natural phenomena, including the human brain. Recent evidence indicates that fractal dimension of functional brain networks, a measure of self-similarity, is diminished in patients diagnosed with disorders of consciousness arising from severe brain injury. Here, we set out to investigate whether loss of self-similarity is observed in the structural connectome of patients with disorders of consciousness. Using diffusion MRI tractography from N = 11 patients in a minimally conscious state (MCS), N = 10 patients diagnosed with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome (UWS), and N = 20 healthy controls, we show that fractal dimension of structural brain networks is diminished in DOC patients. Remarkably, we also show that fractal dimension of structural brain networks is preserved in patients who exhibit evidence of covert consciousness by performing mental imagery tasks during functional MRI scanning. These results demonstrate that differences in fractal dimension of structural brain networks are quantitatively associated with chronic loss of consciousness induced by severe brain injury, highlighting the close connection between structural organisation of the human brain and its ability to support cognitive function.