What Occurs in The Brain at Time of Death
Published: 2022-07-17 - Updated: 2023-01-04
Author: Frontiers | Contact: frontiersin.org
Peer-Reviewed Publication: Yes
Journal Reference: DOI Link to the Study Paper
Library of Related Papers: The Human Brain Publications
Synopsis: Research reveals brain oscillations associated with memory retrieval alter in the moments before death, suggesting our brain may replay significant life events just before we die. Just before and after the heart stopped working, we saw changes in a specific band of neural oscillations, so-called gamma oscillations, but also in others such as delta, theta, alpha, and beta oscillations. Through generating oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be playing the last recall of significant life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences. These findings challenge our understanding of when exactly life ends and generate important subsequent questions, such as those related to the timing of organ donation.
- Brain Death
Human brain death is the permanent, irreversible, and complete loss of brain function, which may include cessation of involuntary activity necessary to sustain life. Brain death is an indicator of legal death in many jurisdictions, but it is defined inconsistently as various parts of the brain may keep functioning when others do not. "Consciousness after death" is a common theme in society and culture in the context of life after death. Scientific research has established that the physiological functioning of the brain, the cessation of which defines brain death, is closely connected to mental states. However, some people believe in some form of life after death - a feature of many religions.
Neuroscientists have recorded the activity of a dying human brain and discovered rhythmic brain wave patterns around the time of death that are similar to those occurring during dreaming, memory recall, and meditation. Now, a study published to Frontiers brings new insight into a possible organizational role of the brain during death and suggests an explanation for vivid life recall in near-death experiences.
Imagine reliving your entire life in the space of seconds. Like a flash of lightning, you are outside your body, watching memorable moments you lived through. This process, known as 'life recall,' can be similar to what it's like to have a near-death experience.
Questions that have puzzled neuroscientists for centuries are what happens inside your brain during these experiences and after death. However, a new study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience suggests that your brain may remain active and coordinated during and even after the transition to death and be programmed to orchestrate the whole ordeal.
When an 87-year-old patient developed epilepsy, Dr. Raul Vicente of the University of Tartu, Estonia, and colleagues used continuous electroencephalography (EEG) to detect the seizures and treat the patient. During these recordings, the patient had a heart attack and passed away. This unexpected event allowed scientists to record the activity of a dying human brain for the first time.
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Findings Challenge Understanding of When Exactly Life Ends
"We measured 900 seconds of brain activity around the time of death and set a specific focus to investigate what happened in the 30 seconds before and after the heart stopped beating," said Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville, US, who organized the study.
"Just before and after the heart stopped working, we saw changes in a specific band of neural oscillations, so-called gamma oscillations, but also in others such as delta, theta, alpha, and beta oscillations."
Brain oscillations (more commonly known as 'brain waves) are patterns of rhythmic activity normally present in living human brains. The different types of oscillations, including gamma, are involved in high-cognitive functions, such as concentrating, dreaming, meditation, memory retrieval, information processing, and conscious perception, just like those associated with memory flashbacks.
"Through generating oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be playing the last recall of important life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences," Zemmar speculated. "These findings challenge our understanding of when exactly life ends and generate important subsequent questions, such as those related to the timing of organ donation."
A Source of Hope
While this study is the first to measure live brain activity during the process of dying in humans, similar changes in gamma oscillations have been previously observed in rats kept in controlled environments. This means it is possible that, during death, the brain organizes and executes a biological response that could be conserved across species.
These measurements are, however, based on a single case and stem from the brain of a patient who had suffered an injury, seizures, and swelling, complicating the data interpretation. Nonetheless, Zemmar plans to investigate more cases and sees these results as a source of hope.
"As a neurosurgeon, I deal with loss at times. It is indescribably difficult to deliver the news of death to distraught family members," he said.
"Something we may learn from this research is: although our loved ones have their eyes closed and are ready to leave us to rest, their brains may be replaying some of the nicest moments they experienced in their lives."
Enhanced Interplay of Neuronal Coherence and Coupling in the Dying Human Brain
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