Neuroimaging tools could open a window on residual neurofunctional activity in the absence of detectable behavioural responses in patients with disorders of consciousness (DOC). Nevertheless, the literature on this topic is characterised by a large heterogeneity of paradigms and methodological approaches that can undermine the reproducibility of the results. To explicitly test whether task-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can be used to systematically detect neurofunctional differences between different classes of DOC, and whether these differences are related with a specific category of cognitive tasks (either active or passive), we meta-analyzed 22 neuroimaging studies published between 2005 and 2017 using the Activation Likelihood Estimate method. The results showed that: (1) active and passive tasks rely on well-segregated patterns of activations; (2) both unresponsive wakeful syndrome and patients in minimally conscious state activated a large portion of the dorsal-attentional network; (3) shared activations between patients fell mainly in the passive activation map (7492 voxels), while only 48 voxels fell in a subcortical region of the active-map. Our results suggest that DOCs can be described along a continuum—rather than as separated clinical categories—and characterised by a widespread dysfunction of brain networks rather than by the impairment of a well functionally anatomically defined one.
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