The neuroethics of disorders of consciousness: A brief history of evolving ideas

Michael J. Young, Yelena G. Bodien, Joseph T. Giacino, Joseph J. Fins, Robert D. Truog, Leigh R. Hochberg, Brian L. Edlow

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Neuroethical questions raised by recent advances in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of consciousness are rapidly expanding, increasingly relevant and yet underexplored. The aim of this thematic review is to provide a clinically applicable framework for understanding the current taxonomy of disorders of consciousness and to propose an approach to identifying and critically evaluating actionable neuroethical issues that are frequently encountered in research and clinical care for this vulnerable population. Increased awareness of these issues and clarity about opportunities for optimizing ethically responsible care in this domain are especially timely given recent surges in critically ill patients with prolonged disorders of consciousness associated with coronavirus disease 2019 around the world. We begin with an overview of the field of neuroethics: what it is, its history and evolution in the context of biomedical ethics at large. We then explore nomenclature used in disorders of consciousness, covering categories proposed by the American Academy of Neurology, the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research, including definitions of terms such as coma, the vegetative state, unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, minimally conscious state, covert consciousness and the confusional state. We discuss why these definitions matter, and why there has been such evolution in this nosology over the years, from Jennett and Plum in 1972 to the Multi-Society Task Force in 1994, the Aspen Working Group in 2002 and the 2018 American and 2020 European Disorders of Consciousness guidelines. We then move to a discussion of clinical aspects of disorders of consciousness, the natural history of recovery and ethical issues that arise within the context of caring for people with disorders of consciousness. We conclude with a discussion of key challenges associated with assessing residual consciousness in disorders of consciousness, potential solutions and future directions, including integration of crucial disability rights perspectives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3291-3310
Number of pages20
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2021


  • COVID-19
  • coma
  • disorders of consciousness
  • neuroethics
  • neurotechnology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology


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