In the last 2 decades, the minimally conscious state has been distinguished conceptually from the vegetative state and operational criteria for these diagnoses have been published. Standardized and individualized assessment tools have been developed to assist with the diagnosis of severe disorders of consciousness and the measurement of clinical improvement. The natural course of recovery and the importance of key prognostic predictors have been elucidated. Important advances have also been made in defining the similarities and differences in the pathophysiology of these two states, and functional imaging modalities have begun to explicate the neural substrate underlying the behavioral features of these disorders. Research on the efficacy of treatments for severe disorders of consciousness lags behind, due to the practical and ethical difficulties in executing large rigorously controlled clinical trials. The past and future scientific developments in this area provide an important background for continuing discussions of the ethical controversies surrounding end-of-life decision making and resource allocation.