A New Revelation About Dying

Blog#157- 5/12/23

By Richard Davis

One of the greatest privileges working in health care is to be able to make the passage into death a little bit easier for people and their families. Nurses and doctors and other providers do their best to ease pain and provide comfort despite the fact that we know almost nothing about the process of dying.

Death is something that has mostly been dealt with in religious and philosophical realms. The fact that we can’t experience death and then come back to talk about it makes it difficult to know anything about the passage.

Of course, there is something of an exception to this when people have what are called near-death experiences surviving after cardiac arrest or remembering being brought to the brink under general anesthesia. The common thread is seeing a bright light and a long tunnel and having a feeling of complete calm. Beyond that we don’t know much, but a study done in 2014 at the University of Michigan with four patients opens a new window into the act of dying.

Here is a synopsis of the study from a recent Medscape article. “The study in question follows four unconscious patients — comatose patients, really — as life-sustaining support was withdrawn, up until the moment of death. Three had suffered severe anoxic brain injury in the setting of prolonged cardiac arrest. Though the heart was restarted, the brain damage was severe. The fourth had a large brain hemorrhage. All four patients were thus comatose and, though not brain-dead, unresponsive — with the lowest possible Glasgow Coma Scale score. No response to outside stimuli. The families had made the decision to withdraw life support — to remove the breathing tube — but agreed to enroll their loved one in the study. The team applied EEG leads to the head, EKG leads to the chest, and other monitoring equipment to observe the physiologic changes that occurred as the comatose and unresponsive patient died.”

The researchers did not know what they would find and their results provide few answers but lead to a lot of questions. At 300 seconds before death they saw a spike in power in the EEG’s in an area of the brain that is associated with conscious experience.
In their synopsis of the study the Medscape reporters noted that, “This spike in power occurred in the somatosensory cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, areas that are associated with conscious experience. It seems that this patient, 5 minutes before death, was experiencing something. But I know what you’re thinking. This is a brain that is not receiving oxygen. Cells are going to become disordered quickly and start firing randomly — a last gasp, so to speak, before the end. Meaningless noise. But connectivity mapping tells a different story. The signals seem to have structure. Those high-frequency power surges increased connectivity in the posterior cortical “hot zone,” an area of the brain many researchers feel is necessary for conscious perception. This figure is not a map of raw brain electrical output like the one I showed before, but of coherence between brain regions in the consciousness hot zone. Those red areas indicate cross-talk — not the disordered scream of dying neurons, but a last set of messages passing back and forth from the parietal and posterior temporal lobes.”

It was noted that this study does not tell us what happens at the time of death but it does pave the way for other researchers to do more studies. As technology advances so might our understanding of the process of death.

Because this study was so technical it did not get any mainstream media attention but I think it is groundbreaking. Religious and philosophical scholars could latch onto these findings and say that the spike in brain activity is when the soul passes from this world to the next or they could say that activity corresponds to when a person sees the bright light and passes through the long tunnel.

We have no answers now but it is worth looking into.

Comments | 1

  • Just Beyond the Next Bluff

    I read with avid interest, “A New Revelations About Dying”. Anything substantive to dispel the haze of faith based dogma and establish empirical beachheads about death is something I’m in favor of. My interest in this subject is amplified by having a parent who has descended(ascended?) into an unreachable vegetative state of dementia. In that realm as well, nobody can say what is going on in the mind. There are models and maps, but it’s unclear what exactly consciousness is?

    Having spent many hours at the bedside of a once lively personality who now lives in the functional lowlands, I’m forced to wonder, not only what is death, but an unavoidable question becomes, “What is life?” I believe our hubris or societal denial offers bromides and postulations, but when you get right down to it,”Who are we, why are we here, what’s the deal?”, these are as unknown as what happens after we die. One of the apocryphal pieces around dementia is that in those last five minutes people often re-gain complete lucidity. That seems bizarre, harsh. But again, we are shooting in the dark in these matters. These mysteries are immense, no way around that.

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