What happens inside the brain during and after death are questions that have baffled neuroscientists for centuries.. Now, researchers in a new study, the first of its kind, recount what can happen in the moments surrounding death.
Scientists accidentally captured the most complex human organ as it was shutting down, and observed that the brain may remain active and coordinated during and after the transition to death, and may even be programmed to orchestrate what is known as “life memory.”.
This experience has already been reported by many who have had near death experiences; as they explain, in a matter of seconds, like lightning, the brain can relive a lifetime.
The scientists came across their observations while studying the brain waves of an 87-year-old epilepsy patient for seizures using an electroencephalography (EEG) device, according to the team’s paper published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
During monitoring, the man suddenly suffered a heart attack and died. This unexpected event allowed scientists to record the activity of a dying human brain for the first time; the electroencephalogram continued to record his brain activity, including the 15 minutes surrounding his death.
Increased brain waves after “death”
The scientists observed that, in the 30 seconds after the patient’s last heartbeat, there was an increase in certain types of brain waves. These waves, known as gamma oscillations, are associated with more sophisticated cognitive functions and are especially active when dreaming, meditating and concentrating.
These waves are also related to memory retrieval and information processing. Therefore, they suggested that a dying person might experience flashes of life from them.
“Through the generation of oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be reproducing a last memory of important life events just before death, similar to those recorded in near-death experiences,” he stated in a press release Ajmal Zemmar of the University of Louisville, lead author of the study.
“Just before and after the heart stopped working, we observed changes in a specific band of neural oscillations, the so-called gamma oscillations, but also others such as delta, theta, alpha and beta oscillations,” he added.
When exactly does life end?
According to Zemmar, the study could offer a better understanding of the “timing of organ donation.” Furthermore, “these findings challenge our understanding of exactly when life ends,” she added.
Although the study, the first of its kind, is based on a single case, which also involved a patient suffering from epilepsy and swelling, Zemmar said he hopes to investigate more cases.
In addition to what was observed in the patient, similar cases have been recorded, with gamma oscillations, in rats kept in controlled environments. This means that it is possible that, during death, the brain organizes and executes a biological response that could be conserved in all species.
According to Zemmar, the results give neuroscientists hope of better understanding the phenomenon of “recall of life,” which is often reported by those who have had near-death experiences.
A pleasant moment before dying
Zemmar added that insights gained from the patient can offer a new, positive perspective for those dealing with the death of a loved one.
“One thing we can learn from this research is that even when our loved ones have their eyes closed and are ready to leave us, their brains may be replaying some of the most pleasant moments they have experienced in their lives.”Zemmar said.
Edited by Felipe Espinosa Wang.