We review the nosological criteria and functional neuroanatomical basis for brain death, coma, vegetative state, minimally consscious state and the locked-in state. Functional neuroimaging is providing new insights into cerebral activity in patients with severe brain damage. Measurements of cerebral metabolism and brain activations in response to sensory stimuli with PET, fMRI, and electrophysiological methods can provide information on the presence, degree, and location of any residual brain function. However, use of these techniques in people with severe brain damage is methodologically complex and needs careful quantitative analysis and interpretation. In addition, ethical frameworks to guide research in these patients must be further developed. At present, clinical examinations identify nosological distinctions needed for accurate diagnosis and prognosis. Neuroimaging techniques remain important tools for clinical research that will extend our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of these disorders.
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