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Observations on the Ethical and Social Aspects of Disorders of Consciousness

  • Eric Racine (a1) (a2) (a3), Catherine Rodrigue (a1), James L. Bernat (a4), Richard Riopelle (a2) and Sam D. Shemie (a5)...

The care of chronically unconscious patients raises vexing medical, ethical, and social questions concerning diagnosis, prognosis, communication with family members, and decision making, including the withdrawal of life support. We provide updates on major controversies surrounding disorders of consciousness. Issues such as withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration – which had been considered “settled” by many in the medical, legal and ethical communities – have resurfaced under the pressure of social groups and religious authorities. Some assumptions about the level of awareness and the prognosis of vegetative state and minimal conscious patients are questioned by advances in clinical care because of insights produced by neuroscience research techniques, particularly functional neuroimaging. Both the clinical and neuroscience dimensions of disorders of consciousness raise complex issues such as resource allocation and high levels of diagnostic inaccuracies (at least, for the vegetative state). We conclude by highlighting areas needing further research and collaboration.

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Corresponding author
Neuroethics Research Unit, Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM), 110 avenue des Pins Ouest, Montréal, Québec, H2W lR7, Canada
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