In patients who have survived severe brain damage, judging the level of actual awareness has proved a difficult process. And the prognosis can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. New research suggests that some vegetative patients are capable of simple learning—a sign of consciousness in many who had failed other traditional cognitive tests. The findings are presented in a paper today in Nature Neuroscience (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group) … Previous neuroimaging work had surprised doctors by showing that some vegetative patients, when asked to imagine performing physical tasks such as playing tennis, still had activity in premotor areas. In other patients, verbal cues sparked language sectors. "It's really quite appalling that we don't have better techniques to evaluate cognitive and brain states on these individuals," says Joy Hirsch, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Columbia University, who wasn't involved in the study.