Death and the Brain


When do we die? Studies have shown our cells continue to live when the heart stops beating. And what about our brains?

People who've been brought back to life after flatlining have described out of body experiences. And now new research suggests the brain is incredibly active as a person dies.

Researchers have seen highly organized gamma waves in the brain in the last moments of life. These waves are linked to higher brain functions such as memory, cognition, and attention. They help the various parts of the brain communicate and indicate consciousness.

Just a couple of years ago, scientists were measuring electrical activity on the surface of an 87-year-old patient's brain when he suddenly died. There was a surge of gamma waves for 30 seconds before and after his heart stopped.

In the new study, scientists had permission to monitor comatose patients not expected to recover after their ventilators were removed.

They also saw a surge in gamma waves for 30 seconds to 2 minutes after the ventilators were removed. The waves were organized and provoked brain activity especially toward the back of the head and behind the ear.

These areas are associated with dreams and out of body experiences. This could be an indication that the person is conscious as they die. Since dying people can't describe what happened, we don't know for sure.

Could we someday use AI to "read" the final thoughts of people? It raises many ethical questions even if we could.

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More Information

Surging Brain Activity in Dying People May Be a Sign of Near-Death Experiences
Researchers found that two of four comatose patients had brain waves that resembled consciousness after they were taken off life support..

Surges of activity in the dying human brain could hint at fleeting conscious experiences
In their last minutes of life, some people's brains generate a surge of surprisingly organized-looking electrical activity that may reflect consciousness - although scientists aren't entirely sure.According to new research, this surge can sometimes occur after a person's breathing stops but before the brain stops functioning...

Surge of neurophysiological coupling and connectivity of gamma oscillations in the dying human brain
The brain is assumed to be hypoactive during cardiac arrest. However, animal models of cardiac and respiratory arrest demonstrate a surge of gamma oscillations and functional connectivity. To investigate whether these preclinical findings translate to humans, we analyzed electroencephalogram and electrocardiogram signals in four comatose dying patients before and after the withdrawal of ventilatory support...