The vegetative state and the minimally conscious state are disorders of consciousness that can be acute and reversible or chronic and irreversible. Diffuse lesions of the thalami, cortical neurons, or the white-matter tracts that connect them cause the vegetative state, which is wakefulness without awareness. Functional imaging with PET and functional MRI shows activation of primary cortical areas with stimulation, but not of secondary areas or distributed neural networks that would indicate awareness. Vegetative state has a poor prognosis for recovery of awareness when present for more than a year in traumatic cases and for 3 months in non-traumatic cases. Patients in minimally conscious state are poorly responsive to stimuli, but show intermittent awareness behaviours. Indeed, findings of preliminary functional imaging studies suggest that some patients could have substantially intact awareness. The outcomes of minimally conscious state are variable. Stimulation treatments have been disappointing in vegetative state but occasionally improve minimally conscious state. Treatment decisions for patients in vegetative state or minimally conscious state should follow established ethical and legal principles and accepted practice guidelines of professional medical specialty societies.