As many as one third of patients who receive a "persistent vegetative state" diagnosis might still be conscious, reports Maclean's. These results, published today in The Lancet, carry many ethical and legal implications for how healthcare professionals and society at large regard patients who appear to have lost all consciouness.

Better health outcomes than patients who are truly "vegetative"

Steven Laureys, neuroscientist at the Université de Liège and lead author of the study, told Maclean's that the consequences of this study "are huge." His group found that 13 out of the 42 patients they screened showed signs of brain activity. In this state, he said, patients may have emotions and they might feel pain, so the neglect they often face is unacceptable. Moreover, patients who show small signs of consciousness sometimes have better health outcomes than patients who are truly "vegetative," so it's important to identify them early on. When given the right care, some may reach higher levels of consciousness over time. There have even been a few instances where patients have emerged from their comas.

This is not the first study that Laureys' group has published on the subject. In 2009, they demonstrated that 41 percent of 103 "vegetative" patients were actually in a minimally conscious state. Laureys hopes that this latest study will force the medical community to take notice. Currently, he said, "nobody questions whether or not there could be something more going on." But if Laureys' results are any indication, there might be more "going on" in more patients than doctors ever anticipated.