The vegetative and minimally conscious states are examples of what are referred to as disorders of consciousness. Patients in these conditions are more or less oblivious to goings-on in their surroundings – they exhibit few, if any, signs of conscious awareness, and are usually unable to communicate in any way. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to establish what these patients are experiencing, and the consciousness disorders are among the least understood, and most commonly diagnosed, conditions in medicine.
Although technologies such as functional neuorimaging have enabled clinicians to gain some insight into these conditions, proper assessment and diagnosis of patients are still major challenges, and there are big ethical questions regarding how they should be treated. However, researchers from the University of Cambridge have made what could be a significant advance.