Dissociating speech perception and comprehension at
reduced levels of awareness
Matthew H. Davis*†, Martin R. Coleman‡, Anthony R. Absalom§, Jennifer M. Rodd¶, Ingrid S. Johnsrude?, Basil F. Matta§,
Adrian M. Owen*‡, and David K. Menon†‡§
*Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge CB2 7EF, United Kingdom;‡Impaired Consciousness Study
Group, Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 2QQ, United Kingdom;§Division of Anaesthesia, University of Cambridge,
Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge CB2 2QQ, United Kingdom;¶Department of Psychology, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, United
Kingdom; and?Department of Psychology, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, Canada K7L 3N6
Edited by Edward E. Smith, Columbia University, New York, NY, and approved August 24, 2007 (received for review February 13, 2007)
We used functional MRI and the anesthetic agent propofol to
assess the relationship among neural responses to speech, suc-
cessful comprehension, and conscious awareness. Volunteers were
matched sentences without ambiguous words, and signal-
were nonsedated (awake), lightly sedated (a slowed response to
conversation), and deeply sedated (no conversational response,
rousable by loud command). Bilateral temporal-lobe responses for
sentences compared with signal-correlated noise were observed at
all three levels of sedation, although prefrontal and premotor
responses to speech were absent at the deepest level of sedation.
Additional inferior frontal and posterior temporal responses to
ambiguous sentences provide a neural correlate of semantic pro-
cesses critical for comprehending sentences containing ambiguous
words. However, this additional response was absent during light
sedation, suggesting a marked impairment of sentence compre-
hension. A significant decline in postscan recognition memory for
sentences also suggests that sedation impaired encoding of sen-
tences into memory, with left inferior frontal and temporal lobe
responses during light sedation predicting subsequent recognition
function in response to sedation such that ‘‘higher-level’’ semantic
and mnemonic processes can be impaired at relatively low levels of
sedation, whereas perceptual processing of speech remains resil-
ient even during deep sedation. These results have important
implications for understanding the relationship between speech
comprehension and awareness in the healthy brain in patients
receiving sedation and in patients with disorders of consciousness.
anesthesia ? functional MRI ? language ? memory ? sedation
severely impaired at reduced levels of awareness. This impair-
ment is difficult to assess behaviorally, because it is possible that
speech comprehension remains intact, but the ability to produce
spoken responses or to remember speech is impaired. Such a
phenomenon may have parallels in two clinical situations: first,
patients diagnosed as in a vegetative state (VS) or minimally
conscious state may comprehend some or all speech but may be
unable to report that fact because of impaired motor responses
(1, 2). Indeed, near-normal neural responses in such patients
have been reported in association with tests of speech compre-
hension (3). Second, some patients undergoing surgery under
general anesthesia may comprehend some or all of what is going
on around them. However, unless specific techniques are used,
patients may be unable to signal that comprehension was intact
or remember speech for later report (4). Such phenomena might
suggest that speech can be both perceived and comprehended in
the absence of conscious awareness or subsequent memory.
However, functional imaging studies have so far failed to answer
whether higher cognitive processing of speech is preserved in the
s anyone who has tried to converse with a drowsy partner
can testify, spoken language comprehension appears to be
absence of conscious awareness and have not provided neural
correlates of the transition between conscious and nonconscious
perception of spoken language.
In the present study, we tested the hypothesis that perceptual
and memory encoding can be differentially affected at reduced
levels of awareness. We use functional imaging during graded
sedation with an anesthetic agent to assess neural correlates of
covert language comprehension at reduced levels of awareness.
Previous functional MRI (fMRI) studies of volunteers under the
influence of anesthetic agents have suggested that the additional
activity normally observed in awake volunteers when speech is
compared with matched nonspeech sounds is not observed after
sedation or anesthesia (5, 6). What is unclear is whether this
absence of speech-specific activity during anesthesia also implies
a lack of comprehension. Neural responses observed in sedation-
induced low-awareness states may also assist interpretation of
responses to speech in VS and minimally conscious state pa-
tients. It is unclear whether neural activity that has been
observed in some patients implies intact perception and com-
prehension of speech (2).
We used fMRI in conjunction with well controlled speech and
nonspeech materials (7) to assess neural responses to speech
sounds and sentence meaning during sedation with the anes-
thetic agent propofol. By comparing responses to sentences and
acoustically matched nonspeech noises (signal-correlated noise,
temporal gyri involved in perceiving spoken sentences while
controlling for low-level auditory processes that are engaged for
we contrast responses to sentences that contain ambiguous
words (such as bark or rain/reign) with matched sentences that
lack equivalent ambiguities. Ambiguous words are ubiquitous in
spoken language (10), and an additional process of contextually
constrained meaning selection is necessary for successful com-
prehension of sentences that contain an ambiguous word (11,
12). Existing work has highlighted bilateral inferior frontal and
left posterior inferior temporal regions, which show an elevated
response to sentences containing ambiguities (7, 13). In the
present study, we use this neural correlate of ambiguity resolu-
Author contributions: M.H.D., J.M.R., I.S.J., B.F.M., A.M.O., and D.K.M. designed research;
M.R.C. and A.R.A. performed research; M.H.D. and M.R.C. analyzed data; and M.H.D.,
M.R.C., A.R.A., J.M.R., I.S.J., A.M.O., and D.K.M. wrote the paper.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
inferior frontal gyrus; MTG, middle temporal gyrus; PCG, precentral gyrus; FDR, false
discovery rate; BOLD, blood-oxygen-level dependent.
†To whom correspondence may be addressed. E-mail: email@example.com or
This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/
© 2007 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA
October 9, 2007 ?
vol. 104 ?
no. 41 www.pnas.org?cgi?doi?10.1073?pnas.0701309104
tion as a marker for intact sentence comprehension, which we
can then assess at reduced levels of awareness.
In previous fMRI studies using propofol sedation, the drug
was administered at a single infusion rate (6) or by a computer-
controlled infusion system with a single ‘‘target’’ plasma con-
centration in all volunteers (5). In contrast, we individually
tailored propofol infusion rates to generate specific levels of
sedation in each of three scanning runs in each volunteer.
Sedation levels were systematically assessed by using spoken
response guided by the Ramsay sedation scale (14). Such ratings
have previously shown a high degree of interrater reliability and
therefore provide a systematic well validated measurement scale
for the assessment of awareness levels (15). We assessed speech-
specific perceptual processes and higher-level semantic pro-
cesses at three qualitatively different levels of sedation: nonse-
dated (awake), lightly sedated (a slowed response to
conversation), and deeply sedated (no conversational response
but rousable by loud commands).
Speech Perception and Comprehension. Contrasting blood-oxygen-
level-dependent (BOLD) responses to SCN and silence (SCN vs.
silence) highlighted activity in primary auditory regions on the
superior temporal plane, centered on Heschl’s gyrus. As shown
previously (5, 6), auditory responses compared with a silent
baseline are robust at all three levels of sedation tested, dem-
onstrating that cortical auditory processes remain functional
during sedation [see Fig. 1 a–c and supporting information (SI)
Table 1]. To assess speech-specific neural responses, we contrast
the BOLD response to low-ambiguity sentences and SCN (low
vs. SCN). Consistent with previous fMRI findings in awake
volunteers (7, 9), this contrast highlights anterior and posterior
regions in the superior and middle temporal gyri (Fig. 1d; SI
Table 2) that support perceptual processes critical for speech
comprehension (16, 17). We also observe an additional response
to speech in inferior frontal and premotor regions. A striking
finding, however, is that the response of both temporal- and
frontal-lobe regions remains robust in lightly sedated volunteers
(Fig. 1e). Despite participants showing no response to conver-
sational speech once deeply sedated, temporal (but not frontal)
responses to speech remain largely intact (Fig. 1f).
Neural correlates of semantic processes involved in sentence
comprehension were assessed by using the contrast between
responses to high- and low-ambiguity sentences (high vs. low).
The previous findings of inferior frontal and inferior temporal
activity in this contrast are replicated for awake volunteers (Fig.
1g; SI Table 3). However, despite speech-specific activity in both
lightly and deeply sedated volunteers, the contrast between high-
and low-ambiguity sentences did not reveal any significant
difference in activity even during light sedation (Fig. 1h).
The interaction between condition (SCN, low- and high-
ambiguity sentences) and sedation (awake, light, and deep
sedation) reveals a number of left-lateralized regions that show
a condition-specific response to sedation, including the middle
temporal, precentral, and inferior frontal gyri (see Fig. 2a; SI
Table 4). As confirmed by paired comparisons, not all brain
areas show the same condition by sedation interaction, and thus
we observe dissociations among regions showing a progressive
reduction of perceptual and semantic responses to speech at
4). For instance, the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG; Fig. 2b) shows
a significant decline in the ambiguity effect (high vs. low)
between awake and light sedation conditions but no reduction in
perceptual responses to speech (low vs. SCN) during light
sedation. In contrast, the middle temporal gyrus (MTG; Fig. 2c)
and precentral gyrus (PCG; Fig. 2d) show a significant reduction
in speech responses (low vs. SCN) during light sedation. Com-
paring the ambiguity response (high vs. low) during light and
deep sedation fails to reveal any brain area that shows a
significant decline in semantic processing. However, we do see a
further decline in activity for speech (low vs. SCN) in all three
regions mentioned previously (IFG, MTG, and PCG), although
this fails to reach false discovery rate (FDR)-corrected signifi-
cance in the MTG. Statistical comparison of the response
profiles of the three peak voxels in the IFG, MTG, and PCG
plotted in Fig. 2 b–d reveal a significant three-way brain region
by condition by sedation interaction (P ? 0.01) with paired
comparisons of regions confirming that the response of the IFG
Signal Correlated Noise > Silence
Low Ambiguity > Signal Correlated Noise
High Ambiguity > Low Ambiguity
light sedation light/deep sedation
deep sedation deep sedation
whole-brain corrected (solid line on scale) rendered onto a canonical brain image for nonsedated (i.e., awake) (a), lightly sedated (b), and deeply sedated (c)
volunteers. Inset shows an axial slice at the level of Heschl’s Gyrus (z ? 0 mm). Activity for the contrast of low-ambiguity sentences and SCN at P ? 0.05 FDR
whole-brain corrected for awake (d), lightly sedated (e), and deeply sedated (f) volunteers. Brain regions showing significant activation for high- vs.
low-ambiguity sentences for awake (g) and lightly/deeply sedated (h) volunteers. Results are thresholded at P ? 0.05 FDR (dotted line on scale) within a search
volume based on previous results (7). No voxels reach a corrected or uncorrected threshold (P ? 0.01) during light or deep sedation.
fMRI response for simple contrasts between listening conditions at three levels of sedation. Contrast of SCN and silence thresholded at P ? 0.05 FDR
Davis et al.
October 9, 2007 ?
vol. 104 ?
no. 41 ?
is significantly different from both the MTG and PCG, which did
not differ from each other. These three regions thus show
differential condition-specific responses to sedation.
Effects of Sedation on Subsequent Memory. Recognition-memory
data collected for 11 of the 12 volunteers revealed that memory
performance was near ceiling for sentences presented while
subjects were completely awake, at chance levels for sentences
presented during deep sedation, and at intermediate levels for
memory performance did not correlate with predicted propofol
concentrations during either light or deep sedation (both P ?
0.05). The effect of propofol sedation on memory for spoken
19). Of 11 volunteers, 9 remembered ?50% of sentences pre-
sented during light sedation at mean effect-site concentration
of 1.0 ?g/ml, similar to previous estimates of effect site concen-
tration for 50% correct memory (1.26 and 0.43 ?g/ml; refs. 18
Memory for sentences presented during light sedation varied
among volunteers and correlated with the magnitude of BOLD
response to sentences in the left inferior frontal and middle
temporal gyri (Fig. 3 b and c; SI Table 6). Comparison of neural
responses to subsequently recognized and subsequently forgot-
ten sentences presented during light sedation showed an addi-
tional response for remembered sentences in the posterior MTG
(x ? ?52, y ? ?34, z ? ?2, Z ? 4.10, cluster size 28 voxels, P ?
0.05 FDR). A further analysis to assess the relationship between
neural activity and recognition memory focused on responses in
an anterior portion of the left hippocampus that has previously
been associated with encoding verbal materials (y ? ?20, 20)
Although neither analysis reached a corrected level of signifi-
cance, a cluster of 21 voxels showed an additional response for
subsequently remembered sentences during light sedation at P ?
0.01 uncorrected (peak voxel, x ? ?10, y ? ?4, z ? ?16, Z ?
3.02, P ? 0.001 uncorrected, P ? 0.145 FDR; see SI Fig. 5). We
tested for an association between activity for high- vs. low-
ambiguity sentences and recognition-memory scores (d?), but
these did not correlate significantly, nor did ambiguity effects
during light sedation become significant when responses were
assessed only for sentences that were subsequently recognized.
Left Inferior Frontal Gyrus
Left Middle Temporal Gyrus
Left Precentral Gyrus
BOLD signal interaction between condition and sedation level rendered onto
a canonical brain image. Results are thresholded at P ? 0.05 FDR corrected
compared with SCN in awake participants. (b) Plot of BOLD signal changes
compared with rest for high-ambiguity sentences, low-ambiguity sentences,
arrow in a, Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) coordinates: x ? ?44, y ?
subject variability, appropriate for repeated-measures comparisons between
conditions. Significance of two conditions by two sedation level interaction
shown by braces (**reaches P ? 0.05 FDR corrected, equivalent to P ? 0.01
uncorrected; see SI Table 5 and SI Fig. 4). (c) BOLD signal in the left MTG
(broken white arrow in a: x ? ?62, y ? ?34, z ? ?4), plotted as in b.*
black arrow in a: x ? ?50, y ? 0, z ? ?50).
Awake Light Deep
Left Inferior Frontal Gyrus
(Speech vs SCN)
Memory Correlation (Light Sedation)
performance at three levels of sedation (awake, light sedation, and deep
sedation). Error bars show the standard error of the mean over subjects.
Memory was above chance for sentences presented to awake and lightly
sedated participants (***, P ? 0.001), although not for deeply sedated par-
ticipants. Sentence recognition was impaired by light sedation [awake vs.
vs. deep: t(10) ? 4.13, P ? 0.005]. (b) Brain regions showing a signification
correlation between activity for sentences compared with SCN and recogni-
tion-memory performance during light sedation, thresholded at P ? 0.05 FDR
corrected (solid line on scale) within the same search volume as a. (c) BOLD
response for sentences vs. SCN against d? recognition-memory score for the
left IFG [arrow in b, Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) coordinates: x ?
?50, y ? ?28, z ? ?16]. The dashed line shows the best-fitting linear
regression line (y ? 0.023x ? 0.013).
Effects of sedation on sentence memory. (a) d? recognition-memory
www.pnas.org?cgi?doi?10.1073?pnas.0701309104Davis et al.
We demonstrate a graded and hierarchical reduction in the
recruitment of processes involved in speech perception and
comprehension with increased sedation. In awake and fully
conscious participants, fMRI activation provides evidence for
processes engaged in perceiving speech sounds, computing the
meaning of ambiguous spoken sentences and encoding these
associated with speech–sound perception remained robust, yet
recognition memory for sentences was variable and activity
related to semantic ambiguity processing was absent. At the
deepest level of sedation tested, participants were often difficult
to rouse, showed substantially impaired responses to conversa-
tional speech, and were unable to encode sentences for subse-
quent memory. These observations are consistent with substan-
tially impaired awareness of sentences presented during deep
sedation. However, cortical activation was still observed for
speech sounds in regions of the MTG that have previously been
ascribed a critical role in speech perception (8, 9, 16, 17).
participants’ names compared with beeps during sleep (21) and
for nonattended sentences compared with nonattended back-
ground noise (22), our work goes beyond these reports by
demonstrating significant changes in neural responses associated
with changes in awareness of speech sounds and by assessing
neural correlates of semantic and mnemonic processing of
sentences at declining levels of awareness.
changes we observe in speech-specific responses between light
and deep sedation provide a neural correlate of the transition
between conscious and nonconscious perception of speech. We
observed a striking change in the magnitude of inferior frontal
and premotor responses to speech; these are both areas that have
been previously associated with speech perception (9, 23–25).
absence of awareness, during sleep (21), or for nonattended
lobe. This is consistent with the temporal-lobe responses that we
observed during deep sedation. Our data go beyond these
previous reports, however, in suggesting a direct association
reduced awareness of speech.
The association between conscious awareness for spoken
materials and activity in frontal and premotor regions suggested
by the current results is consistent with fMRI responses to brief
masked presentations of written words, which can similarly
evoke posterior cortical activity in conjunction with reduced
prefrontal and premotor activation (26). However, whereas
masked visual presentation also produces a marked reduction in
activity in posterior regions involved in perceptual processing
(such as the fusiform gyrus), temporal-lobe responses for speech
compared with SCN during deep sedation remained robust and
showed only marginal reductions relative to light sedation. Thus,
in our work, as in another recent study of the neural basis of
visual consciousness (27), frontal activity is most clearly associ-
ated with conscious awareness, and posterior regions show
smaller changes in activity despite significant changes in the
degree of conscious awareness. Such findings are consistent with
a global-workspace account (28) in which conscious awareness
and through coherent or synchronous activity in distributed
Semantic and Mnemonic Processing of Speech at Reduced Levels of
Awareness. What is the role of conscious awareness in compre-
hension and memory for speech stimuli? This issue has previ-
ously been explored by examining behavioral and neurophysio-
logical responses to speech that is outside the focus of attention.
Listeners attending to one channel of dichotically presented
speech can detect whether the nonattended channel contains
speech or nonspeech sounds but fail to notice whether nonat-
tended speech changes to a foreign language (29). Nonetheless,
unattended words attract our attention, such as when one’s name
is called, a ‘‘cocktail party effect’’ that suggests some words are
recognized in unattended speech (30), and recent behavioral
work has demonstrated repetition priming effects from noncon-
sciously perceived words (31, 32). Mismatch negativity studies
have shown evoked electrophysiological responses that vary with
the lexical, semantic, and syntactic properties of isolated words
in the absence of directed attention (33). However, in our work,
for successful comprehension, were significantly reduced and
abolished even by light sedation with propofol. This finding
suggests that propofol sedation produces an impairment in
speech comprehension consistent with both reduced recogni-
tion-memory performance and slower and more hesitant verbal
interactions during light sedation.
Our results provide evidence for an association between
speech comprehension (as indexed by ambiguity-related activ-
ity) and awareness level. This may arise because the rapid
efficient disentangling of semantic ambiguity requires coordi-
nated activity in anatomically distant frontal and temporal
regions, and these long-range functional interactions are highly
susceptible to sedation. Previous observations of frontal and
temporal cortical responses for the contrast of high- vs. low-
ambiguity sentences in VS patients (2, 3) are therefore likely to
be of great clinical significance. This conclusion is supported by
the recent observation that one patient who fulfilled clinical
criteria for VS demonstrated both sensitivity to semantic ambi-
guity and showed changes in neural activation in response to
spoken instructions (3). Whether semantic ambiguity resolution
can proceed in the absence of conscious awareness in healthy
nonsedated volunteers remains unclear. Further research to
assess neural correlates of ambiguity resolution in other low-
awareness states, such as during dichotic speech presentation or
using mismatch negativity paradigms, would be valuable.
Recognition-memory performance remained above chance
for sentences presented during light sedation, even while activity
related to semantic ambiguity processing was absent. This may
indicate that participants can remember sentences they initially
failed to comprehend. Indeed, we think that above-chance
performance on the recognition-memory test could arise solely
from familiarity with the perceptual form of heard words. In
future studies, foil sentences that include a previously unused
meaning of an ambiguous word could be used in the recognition-
memory test to assess this possibility. However, given the
complete failure of recognition memory for sentences presented
during deep sedation, despite speech-specific responses in the
temporal lobe, the present results confirm that neural correlates
of perceptual processing of speech can remain intact even in the
absence of subsequent memory for speech content.
Implications for Anesthesia. Our results provide direct evidence of
differential dose-dependent effects of i.v. anesthetics on the
hierarchy of cortical processing required for speech comprehen-
sion. The dissociations we have observed among perceptual,
semantic, and mnemonic responses to speech during sedation
demonstrate that anesthetic agents affect cognitive function in a
graded fashion. Higher-level processes involved in computing
the meaning of sentences or encoding them into memory can be
affected at relatively low levels of sedation, whereas lower-level
perceptual processing of speech remains intact. These results
support the view that anesthesia is a behavioral and neural
continuum rather than a discrete event. This conclusion has
Davis et al.
October 9, 2007 ?
vol. 104 ?
no. 41 ?
potentially important implications for how patients with low
residual blood concentrations of anesthetic drugs receive post-
operative instructions. For instance, we saw a significant decline
in left IFG activation in response to high-ambiguity sentences at
sedation levels that produce only a moderate impairment in
conversational speech. Impaired sentence comprehension may
be particularly relevant (both clinically and medicolegally) in the
context of ambulatory surgery, where patients are discharged
home without formal clinical supervision after short surgical
procedures under general anesthesia.
Our findings are also highly relevant to the phenomenon of
awareness under anesthesia (34, 35), typically diagnosed when
patients report postoperative recollection of events occurring
during general anesthesia. Anesthetic awareness is a distressing
complication with an overall incidence of 0.1–0.2% after surgery
and a significantly greater incidence in patients undergoing
cardiac surgery, cesarean section, and trauma surgery. Our
results show that postsedation memory is correlated with activity
in left frontal and temporal regions that have been associated
with successful memory encoding of verbal materials in awake
participants (36, 37). A previous positron-emission tomography
study assessing the effect of propofol on resting cerebral blood
flow has shown increased hippocampal activity during sedation
(38). However, the present data are equivocal as to whether
activity in hippocampal regions serves to support residual sen-
tence memory during light sedation. Our observations may
provide a neuranatomical substrate for successful memory en-
coding of speech overheard during anesthesia. The implied
connections between the neuroimaging literature on memory
encoding and postanesthetic recall provide a basis for further
research on this clinically important topic.
Current electroencephalographic monitoring of anesthetic
depth may significantly reduce awareness by providing neuro-
physiological targets for titration of anesthesia (34). However,
the neurophysiological targets used for such titration have so far
been validated against a definition of awareness, which includes
explicit postoperative recollection of events. Such a definition
may underestimate the true incidence of complex cortical pro-
cessing of speech, because our data show that speech-specific
neural activity in lateral temporal regions may occur without
subsequent memory. The paradigms we have used may provide
one way of calibrating anesthetic monitors, so that drug admin-
istration can be titrated to also prevent comprehension and both
conscious and nonconscious perception of speech, rather than
just subsequent recollection, thus satisfying both doctors’ and
patients’ expectations concerning general anesthesia.
Participants and Paradigm. Twelve right-handed English-speaking
volunteers participated in the experiment (nine male); mean
(range) age was 34 (29–42) years, and mean (range) mass was 70
(52–85) kg. All participants were medically trained anesthetists
who gave written informed consent under the guidance of the
Cambridge Local Research Ethics Committee in accordance
with the Helsinki declaration.
We used the stimulus materials and experimental design from
a recent fMRI study (7). There were two experimental condi-
tions in which spoken sentences were presented: 59 high-
ambiguity sentences containing two or more ambiguous words
(e.g., ‘‘there were ‘dates’ and ‘pears’ in the fruit bowl’’) and 59
well matched low-ambiguity sentences without ‘‘ambiguous’’
words (e.g., ‘‘there was beer and cider on the kitchen shelf’’) (for
further information, see ref. 7). An additional 59 sentences
matched for duration and number of syllables and words were
converted to speech-spectrum SCN using Praat software (ww-
w.praat.org). These stimuli have the same spectral profile and
amplitude envelope as the original speech but are entirely
unintelligible. An additional 60 silent trials were also included to
allow comparisons between responses to nonspeech SCN and
silent rest. These trials were divided into three runs of 79 trials
with different conditions presented in a pseudorandom order.
The order of the three runs was counterbalanced, so that
different stimulus items were presented at each of three levels of
sedation (nonsedated, lightly sedated, and deeply sedated) in
After participants were removed from the scanner and the
sedative effects of propofol had worn off, a sentence-
recognition-memory test was administered to 11 of the partic-
ipants. This consisted of a written list of 236 sentences, including
the 59 high- and 59 low-ambiguity sentences. Participants were
asked to indicate which sentences they recognized having heard
during scanning. Hit and false-alarm responses were analyzed to
derive a signal-detection measure of sentence recognition-
memory performance (d?), which corrects for biases induced
by participants that respond consistently ‘‘yes’’ or ‘‘no’’ when
Sedation Procedure. The 12 volunteers were scanned in three
12-min fMRI sessions while nonsedated (awake), lightly sedated
(Ramsay score 2; ref. 14), and deeply sedated (Ramsay score 3),
using propofol. Propofol is a GABAApotentiating compound
commonly used by i.v. infusion for sedation during surgical
procedures and intensive care. In higher doses, it is used for
induction and maintenance of general anesthesia. In the present
study, we used a manually implemented ‘‘effect-site steering’’
algorithm in conjunction with a computer-controlled infusion
pump to achieve step-wise increments in the sedative effect of
propofol. This method allowed us to individually tailor propofol
infusion rates to generate specific levels of sedation for scanning
runs in each volunteer (for further details, see SI Text).
Before each scanning run, we assessed participants’ level of
sedation by talking to them through the headphone and micro-
phone system in the scanner and judged their level of sedation
according to their verbal responses. Before administration of
propofol, volunteers were fully awake, alert, and responsive, and
thus could not be scored on the Ramsay sedation scale, which is
intended for patients in an intensive care setting. During ad-
ministration of propofol, participants become more relaxed and
slowed in their responses to conversations, although without
obvious slurring or impairment in conversation, consistent with
level 2 on the Ramsay scale. Once participants no longer
spontaneously engaged in conversation and responded in a
slurred and impaired voice to loud commands or to their name
being shouted, we deemed them to be at Ramsay 3. The mean
(range) estimated effect-site propofol concentration was 1.0
(0.5–1.3) ?g/ml during light sedation (Ramsay 2) and 1.5 (0.8–
2.5) ?g/ml during deep sedation (Ramsay 3). Mean (range) total
mass of propofol administered was 231 (131–342) mg, equivalent
to 3.4 (1.9–5.4) mg/kg. The variability of these concentrations
and doses is typical for studies of the pharmacokinetics and
pharmacodynamics of propofol.
Because of the time taken to recover from propofol sedation,
it was not practical to fully counterbalance the order of the three
sedation levels in different participants. Data were acquired in
the following order: nonsedated, Ramsay 2, Ramsay 3 in 9 of 12
volunteers; and nonsedated, Ramsay 3, Ramsay 2 in the remain-
ing three participants. Statistical comparisons of experimental
and control data demonstrate that scan order effects are insuf-
ficient to account for observed effects of sedation (see SI Text).
fMRI Acquisition and Analysis. fMRI data were acquired by using
a Bruker Medspec 3 Tesla MR system (Ettlingen, Germany) and
a sparse imaging procedure (40). For each volunteer, 243
echo-planar image volumes were acquired [repetition time ? 9 s;
acquisition time (TA) ? 1.6 s; 21 ? 4-mm-thick slices; interslice
www.pnas.org?cgi?doi?10.1073?pnas.0701309104Davis et al.
3.75 mm], in three scanning runs of 83 scans with four dummy Download full-text
scans discarded before analysis. Preprocessing was performed by
using standard procedures with SPM2 software (www.fil.ion.
ucl.ac.uk/spm/software/spm2), and analysis was conducted by
using a general linear model and random effects analysis (for
details, see SI Text and ref. 7). Results are reported that exceed
FDR-corrected threshold of P ? 0.05 (41) for both whole-brain
analysis and analyses using search volumes from previous results.
The interaction between stimulus condition and sedation level
was assessed with an ANOVA implemented in SPM (42). i.v.
anesthetics such as propofol have no major direct effects on
cerebrovascular tone and preserve flow-metabolism coupling
(43). Condition-specific effects of propofol sedation detected by
this interaction analysis are unlikely to arise without differences
(see SI Text). To characterize these interactions, we performed
a series of two-by-two interaction analyses comparing condition-
specific responses at different sedation levels. Parameter esti-
mates from peak voxels in the condition by sedation interaction
were entered into repeated-measures ANOVAs. Significant
three-way brain region by condition by sedation-level interac-
tions demonstrate neural dissociations between perceptual and
semantic responses to speech at different levels of sedation (44).
These interactions cannot arise from vascular effects of an
anesthetic drug in the absence of concurrent local effects on
To relate recognition-memory performance and neural activ-
ity, we correlated the magnitude of activity differences between
sentences vs. SCN with d? recognition-memory scores (see SI
Text for details). We also contrasted sentences that were sub-
sequently recognized or forgotten in the postscan memory test.
For both the sedation-by-condition interaction and subsequent
memory analyses, a search volume (the brain region active for all
sentences compared with SCN during the awake scanning ses-
sion) was used to increase sensitivity.
We thank our volunteers and the radiographers at the Wolfson Brain
Imaging Centre for their assistance. We thank Rik Henson, William
Marslen-Wilson, and anonymous reviewers for comments and sugges-
tions. We acknowledge the financial support of the U.K. Medical
Research Council (including U.1055.04.013, to M.H.D.; U.1055.01.002,
to A.M.O.; and Grant G9439390, ID 56833, to M.R.C. and D.K.M.), the
British Oxygen Professorship of the Royal College of Anesthetists
(A.R.A. and D.K.M.), the Leverhulme Trust (J.M.R.), and the Canadian
Institute for Health Research and Canada Research Chairs Program
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