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Probing the Brain’s Final Moments

12 August 2013 3:00 pm
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Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

Brain on the brink. After cardiac arrest, a final surge of brain activity could contain vivid experience, new research in rodents suggests.

What people experience as death creeps in—after the heart stops and the brain becomes starved of oxygen—seems to lie beyond the reach of science. But the authors of a new study on dying rats make a bold claim: After cardiac arrest, the rodents’ brains enter a state similar to heightened consciousness in humans. The researchers suggest that if the same is true for people, such brain activity could be the source of the visions and other sensations that make up so-called near-death experiences.

Estimated to occur in about 20% of patients who survive cardiac arrest, near-death experiences are frequently described as hypervivid or “realer-than-real,” and often include leaving the body and observing oneself from outside, or seeing a bright light. The similarities between these reports are hard to ignore, but the conversation about near-death experiences often bleeds into metaphysics: Are these visions produced solely by the brain, or are they a glimpse at an afterlife outside the body?

Neurologist Jimo Borjigin of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, got interested in near-death experiences during a different project—measuring the hormone levels in the brains of rodents after a stroke. Some of the animals in her lab died unexpectedly, and her measurements captured a surge in neurochemicals at the moment of their death. Previous research in rodents and humans has shown that electrical activity surges in the brain right after the heart stops, then goes flat after a few seconds. Without any evidence that this final blip contains meaningful brain activity, Borjigin says “it’s perhaps natural for people to assume that [near-death] experiences came from elsewhere, from more supernatural sources.” But after seeing those neurochemical surges in her animals, she wondered about those last few seconds, hypothesizing that even experiences seeming to stretch for days in a person’s memory could originate from a brief “knee-jerk reaction” of the dying brain.

To observe brains on the brink of death, Borjigin and her colleagues implanted electrodes into the brains of nine rats to measure electrical activity at six different locations. The team anesthetized the rats for about an hour, for ethical reasons, and then injected potassium chloride into each unconscious animal’s heart to cause cardiac arrest. In the approximately 30 seconds between a rat’s last heartbeat and the point when its brain stopped producing signals, the team carefully recorded its neuronal oscillations, or the frequency with which brain cells were firing their electrical signals.

The data produced by electroencephalograms (EEGs) of the nine rats revealed a highly organized brain response in the seconds after cardiac arrest, Borjigin and colleagues report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While overall electrical activity in the brain sharply declined after the last heartbeat, oscillations in the low gamma frequency (between 25 and 55 Hz) increased in power. Previous human research has linked gamma waves to waking consciousness, meditative states, and REM sleep. These oscillations in the dying rats were synchronized across different parts of the brain, even more so than in the rat’s normal waking state. The team also noticed that firing patterns in the front of the brain would be echoed in the back and sides. This so-called top-down signaling, which is associated with conscious perception and information processing, increased eightfold compared with the waking state, the team reports. When you put these features together, Borjigin says, they suggest that the dying brain is hyperactive in its final seconds, producing meaningful, conscious activity.

The team proposed that such research offers a “scientific framework” for approaching the highly lucid experiences that some people report after their brushes with death. But relating signs of consciousness in rat brains to human near-death experiences is controversial. “It opens more questions than it answers,” says Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, of the research. Evidence of a highly organized and connected brain state during the animal’s death throes is surprising and fascinating, he says. But Koch, who worked with Francis Crick in the early 1980s to hypothesize that gamma waves are a hallmark of consciousness, says the increase in their frequency doesn’t necessarily mean that the rats were in a hyperconscious state. Not only is it impossible to project any mental experience onto these animals, but their response was also “still overlaid by the anesthesiology,” he says; this sedation likely influenced their brain response in unpredictable ways.

Others share Koch’s concerns. “There is no animal model of a near-death experience,” says critical care physician Sam Parnia of Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York. We can never confirm what animals think or feel in their final moments, making it all but impossible to use them to study our own near-death experiences, he believes. Nonetheless, Parnia sees value in this new study from a clinical perspective, as a step toward understanding how the brain behaves right before death. He says that doctors might use a similar approach to learn how to improve blood flow or prolong electrical activity in the brain, preventing damage while resuscitating a patient.

Borjigin argues that the rat data are compelling enough to drive further study of near-death experiences in humans. She suggests monitoring EEG activity in people undergoing brain surgery that involves cooling the brain and reducing its blood supply. This procedure has prompted near-death experiences in the past, she says, and could offer a systematic way to explore the phenomenon.

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