A vegetative or unresponsive state is a specific neurological diagnosis in which a person has an active brain stem but no consciousness.
The individual is unaware and unresponsive, alternating between sleep and wakefulness. However, even awake, they cannot interact with other people or their surroundings.
Vegetative state signs
A person in an unaware and unresponsive state must have experienced a severe injury to the brain. Thus they have no cognitive function or capacity to think. But since their brain stem is still working, the person may:
- Regulate breathing and heart rate without any assistance
- Open their eyes
- Have a sleep-wake cycle
- Have basic reflexes
- Move their eyes, blink, or tear up
- Moan, grunt, or appear to smile
In a vegetative state, a person stays awake but shows no signs of awareness.
They will not be able to:
- Follow objects with their eyes
- Respond to voices
- Speak or communicate through blinking or gesturing
- Interact with their surroundings and nature
- Show signs of emotion and awareness
Treatment and care
Treatment will not ensure recovery from this state of consciousness. Instead, supportive treatment gives the best chance of natural improvement.
They can involve:
- Feeding nutrition through a tube
- Ensuring the person gets movement regularly so they don’t develop pressure ulcers
- Gently exercising their joints
- Maintaining their skin clean
- Supervising their bowel and bladder (using a tube known as a catheter to empty the bladder)
- Maintaining their teeth and mouth clean
- Staying with them during meaningful activities – such as listening to music or watching television, showing pictures, or hearing family members talking
In some, a therapy called sensory stimulation; is employed to increase responsiveness, encouraging the primary senses, such as vision, hearing, and smell.
Reviewed by – Dr. Priyanka, MBBS MD Microbiology
Page last reviewed: 04 October 2022