This consensus statement of the Multi-Society Task Force summarizes current knowledge of the medical aspects of the persistent vegetative state in adults and children. The vegetative state is a clinical condition of complete unawareness of the self and the environment, accompanied by sleep-wake cycles, with either complete or partial preservation of hypothalamic and brain-stem autonomic functions. In addition, patients in a vegetative state show no evidence of sustained, reproducible, purposeful, or voluntary behavioral responses to visual, auditory, tactile, or noxious stimuli; show no evidence of language comprehension or expression; have bowel and bladder incontinence; and have variably preserved cranial-nerve and spinal reflexes. We define persistent vegetative state as a vegetative state present one month after acute traumatic or nontraumatic brain injury or lasting for at least one month in patients with degenerative or metabolic disorders or developmental malformations. The clinical course and outcome of a persistent vegetative state depend on its cause. Three categories of disorder can cause such a state: acute traumatic and non-traumatic brain injuries; degenerative and metabolic brain disorders, and severe congenital malformations of the nervous system. Recovery of consciousness from a posttraumatic persistent vegetative state is unlikely after 12 months in adults and children. Recovery from a nontraumatic persistent vegetative state after three months is exceedingly rare in both adults and children. Patients with degenerative or metabolic disorders or congenital malformations who remain in a persistent vegetative state for several months are unlikely to recover consciousness. The life span of adults and children in such a state is substantially reduced. For most such patients, life expectancy ranges from 2 to 5 years; survival beyond 10 years is unusual.