Who is Karen Ann Quinlan?

Answer: Karen Ann Quinlan was a woman who was in a coma for almost a decade. She was the center of a major “Right to Die” controversy.

Karen Ann Quinlan coma brain stem thalamus

Born in 1954, Karen lost consciousness when she was 21. She remained in a persistent vegetative state for nearly a decade before her death from respiratory failure. Her parents requested that she not be resuscitated and that she was removed from her ventilator, starting the debate regarding the right to death.

In the persistent vegetative state, a person is awake but unable to think consciously. Quinlan developed seizures, and there were notable changes in her brain anatomy years after the onset of her coma, including cerebral and cerebellar atrophy, and dilatation of the ventricles.

It was generally believed that the brain stem controls many important basic functions such as consciousness. However, a pathological examination of Quinlan’s brain revealed that her brain stem was mostly intact. The report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicated that there was significant damage to her thalamus. The researchers concluded that the thalamus plays a significant role in cognition and awareness, not general arousal. Although, this interpretation may be confounded by the brain injury that Quinlan may have experienced when she was found unresponsive.