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Does any aspect of mind survive brain damage that typically leads to a persistent vegetative state? Ethical considerations

Jaak Panksepp12*, Thomas Fuchs1, Victor Abella Garcia1 and Adam Lesiak1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of VCAPP, College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, USA

2 Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science, Department of VCAPP, College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University, PO Box 646520, Pullman WA 99164-6520, USA

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Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2007, 2:32  doi:10.1186/1747-5341-2-32

Published: 17 December 2007


Recent neuroscientific evidence brings into question the conclusion that all aspects of consciousness are gone in patients who have descended into a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Here we summarize the evidence from human brain imaging as well as neurological damage in animals and humans suggesting that some form of consciousness can survive brain damage that commonly causes PVS. We also raise the issue that neuroscientific evidence indicates that raw emotional feelings (primary-process affects) can exist without any cognitive awareness of those feelings. Likewise, the basic brain mechanisms for thirst and hunger exist in brain regions typically not damaged by PVS. If affective feelings can exist without cognitive awareness of those feelings, then it is possible that the instinctual emotional actions and pain "reflexes" often exhibited by PVS patients may indicate some level of mentality remaining in PVS patients. Indeed, it is possible such raw affective feelings are intensified when PVS patients are removed from life-supports. They may still experience a variety of primary-process affective states that could constitute forms of suffering. If so, withdrawal of life-support may violate the principle of nonmaleficence and be tantamount to inflicting inadvertent "cruel and unusual punishment" on patients whose potential distress, during the process of dying, needs to be considered in ethical decision-making about how such individuals should be treated, especially when their lives are ended by termination of life-supports. Medical wisdom may dictate the use of more rapid pharmacological forms of euthanasia that minimize distress than the de facto euthanasia of life-support termination that may lead to excruciating feelings of pure thirst and other negative affective feelings in the absence of any reflective awareness.