Brain Death, Coma, and PVS

The recent news stories involving Jahi McMath and Marlise Munoz have both involved the issue of brain death. As these cases grew to become national news events, millions of people began asking themselves important questions. What is brain death? What happens to me if I am brain dead? What do I want my doctors to do if I should ever be in such a state?

Making knowledgeable medical decisions is based upon having a basic understanding of important terms like brain death, comas, and persistent vegetative states. Here is the basic information you need to know.

Brain Death

A brain-dead person is someone who shows no signs of activity in either the higher or lower brain.

Brains are incredibly complicated organs, with trillions of connections between different nerve cells. Brains are also comprised of different areas, each of which plays different roles. Put simply, our brains can be divided into two general areas: the lower brain and the higher brain. The higher brain controls cognitive functions such as thought and emotion, while the lower brain controls basic physiological processes, such as respiration and heart rate.

When physicians use the term brain death, they are referring to a lack of activity in both areas of the brain. Some people who are brain dead can have their physiological processes kept going by the use of machines, but their brains are not involved in this process. Further, the higher brain functions involved in cognition are gone.

Persistent Vegetative State

A persistent vegetative state, or PVS, occurs when a person loses the higher brain functions but maintains activity in the lower brain. Someone with PVS can maintain his or her heart rate, breathing, and other physiological processes without the aid of machines, but does not have any cognitive function. In very rare situations a person with PVS can recover cognitive functions, but this is by far the exception to the norm.


Someone who is comatose does not give any outward appearance of any kind of brain activity, even though that person’s brain is still showing activity in both higher and lower parts. Comatose people typically recover within several days or several weeks, though there are situations when someone can remain comatosed for years or longer. Further, doctors will sometimes intentionally place someone into a comatose state in order to give that person’s body the ability to better heal itself.

A person in a coma is neither brain dead nor in a persistent vegetative state. Though someone in a coma can still suffer significant brain damage, that person’s brain still maintains activity throughout the period in which that person is comatosed.

How to Plan

It is important to plan for situations such as these.  Hammond Law Group has Estate Planning workshops regularly that can help people plan in the event of incapacitation.  To register for these workshops, visit our workshop page or call us at 719-520-1474 or 303-736-6060.

Author Bio

Catherine Hammond is the CEO and founder of Hammond Law Group, a Colorado-based estate planning law firm she founded in 2005. With a strong focus on protecting families from the legal consequences of disability and death, she creates comprehensive estate plans that minimize taxes, costs, and government interference.

A native of Denver, Catherine completed her undergraduate studies at Coe College in Iowa, and her Juris Doctorate from the University of Denver College of Law in 1993, concentrating on estate planning, tax, and mediation. Catherine is a member of various professional organizations, including WealthCounsel, ElderCounsel, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, the Colorado Springs Estate Planning Council, and the Purposeful Planning Institute. Beyond her legal expertise, Catherine provides transformational coaching to support clients and their families through life transitions.

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