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Disorders of consciousness: What's in a name?


Following a coma, some patients may “awaken” without voluntary interaction or communication with the environment. More than 40 years ago this condition was coined coma vigil or apallic syndrome and later became worldwide known as “persistent vegetative state”. About 10 years ago it became clear that some of these patients who failed to recover verbal or non-verbal communication did show some degree of consciousness – a condition called “minimally conscious state”. Some authors questioned the usefulness of differentiating unresponsive “vegetative” from minimally conscious patients but subsequent functional neuroimaging studies have since objectively demonstrated differences in residual cerebral processing and hence, we think, conscious awareness. These neuroimaging studies have also demonstrated that a small subset of unresponsive “vegetative” patients may show unambiguous signs of consciousness and command following inaccessible to bedside clinical examination. These findings, together with negative associations intrinsic to the term “vegetative state” as well as the diagnostic errors and their potential effect on the treatment and care for these patients gave rise to the recent proposal for an alternative neutral and more descriptive name: unresponsive wakefulness syndrome. We here give an overview of PET and (functional) MRI studies performed in these challenging patients and stress the need for a separate ICD-9-CM diagnosis code and MEDLINE MeSH entry for "minimally conscious state" as the lack of clear distinction between vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome and minimally conscious state may encumber scientific studies in the field of disorders of consciousness.