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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 that 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 (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.

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