The clinical assessment of non-communicative brain damaged patients is extremely difficult and there is a need for paraclinical diagnostic markers of the level of consciousness. In the last few years, progress within neuroimaging has led to a growing body of studies investigating vegetative state and minimally conscious state patients, which can be classified in two main approaches. Active neuroimaging paradigms search for a response to command without requiring a motor response. Passive neuroimaging paradigms investigate spontaneous brain activity and brain responses to external stimuli and aim at identifying neural correlates of consciousness. Other passive paradigms eschew neuroimaging in favour of behavioural markers which reliably distinguish conscious and unconscious conditions in healthy controls. In order to furnish accurate diagnostic criteria, a mechanistic explanation of how the brain gives rise to consciousness seems desirable. Mechanistic and theoretical approaches could also ultimately lead to a unification of passive and active paradigms in a coherent diagnostic approach. In this paper, we survey current passive and active paradigms available for diagnosis of residual consciousness in vegetative state and minimally conscious patients. We then review the current main theories of consciousness and see how they can apply in this context. Finally, we discuss some avenues for future research in this domain.