- A new study showed a surge of brain activity associated with consciousness among comatose patients who died after cardiac arrest.
- The activity was found in the part of the brain linked to dreaming, visual hallucinations in epilepsy and altered states of consciousness.
- Overall, further research is needed to better understand more about what happens in the dying brain.
There have been many theories and questions that go unanswered regarding what happens when a person dies. Some people who have had near-death experiences reported seeing a white light while others have said they floated above their bodies and saw themselves below.
New research uncovered interesting brain wave patterns in comatose patients who died after cardiac arrest. The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, showed a surge of conscious-like activity in the dying brain.
Understanding why the brain is activated during the dying process
Researchers examined four patients under EEG monitoring who passed away due to cardiac arrest. Since the patients were unresponsive, comatose and couldn’t receive any further medical help, they were taken off life support.
After being taken off the ventilator, two patients showed an increase in heart rate and a surge of gamma wave activity in the brain, which is the fastest type of activity and is also correlated with consciousness.
Additionally, the activity was found in the part of the brain associated with dreaming, visual hallucinations in epilepsy, and altered states of consciousness.
Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and the Department of Neurology at the University of Michigan and one of the authors of the study explained the main takeaways of the reserach.
“First, the brain can be activated by the dying process,” Borjigin told Healthline. “Second, we need to investigate the role of the brain in cardiac arrest: if the brain is more activated during dying, why? There are functions of the brain we did not know prior to our study.”
Trying to understand what happens as we die
“We don’t fully know the answer to this question,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, neuroscientist and director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital. “Previously, it was assumed that the brain just stops functioning, but this study, and several other similar ones, are suggesting that there is specific brain activity associated with the near-death state.”
The study found that areas of the brain associated with cognitive processes, including the temporo-parietal junction and the prefrontal cortex, were involved.
Newberg added that these areas of the brain have been associated with spiritual experiences and that these experiences are associated with an increased activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the “fight-or-flight” response in the body.
Do people see a light at the end of the tunnel?
“What this study really suggests is that the brain is undergoing some chemical changes during the dying process. It explains the perceptions people have about seeing angels or light at the end of a tunnel,” Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at NYU Langone Medical Center, stated. “What it shows is that the brain has measures that it takes to try and wake itself up and fires off in ways that can be hallucinatory.”
Many people are curious about what happens next after death, but this study is very preliminary and doesn’t go down that road.
“In some ways, this study sheds light on people’s fear that maybe they’re going to suffer when they’re dying at the last moment, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. But maybe they’ll be disappointed because what this study is suggesting is you don’t get any insights from the dying experience into what really comes next,” Caplan added.
According to a new study, a surge of conscious-like brain activity occurred among comatose patients who died after cardiac arrest.
The activity was found in the part of the brain associated with dreaming, visual hallucinations in epilepsy and altered states of consciousness.
Experts are hopeful that continuing with this line of study and learning more about the dying brain could save cardiac arrest patients in the future.
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