Small study finds activity surge in dying brains

Common elements of near-death experiences beg the question of whether there is something fundamentally real underpinning them. "How vivid experience can emerge from a dysfunctional brain during the process of dying is a neuroscientific paradox," says George Mashour. (Credit: Getty Images)

A new study offers early evidence of a surge of activity correlated with consciousness in the dying brain.

Reports of near-death experiences—with tales of white light, visits from departed loved ones, hearing voices, among other attributes—capture our imagination and are deeply engrained in our cultural landscape.

The fact that these reports share so many common elements begs the question of whether there is something fundamentally real underpinning them—and that those who have managed to survive death are providing glimpses of a consciousness that does not completely disappear, even after the heart stops beating.

The new study, led by Jimo Borjigin, associate professor in the department of molecular and integrative physiology and the neurology department at the University of Michigan, and her team is a follow-up to animal studies conducted almost 10 years ago in collaboration with George Mashour, the founding director of the Michigan Center for Consciousness Science.

Researchers recorded similar signatures of gamma activation in the dying brains of both animals and humans upon a loss of oxygen following cardiac arrest.

“How vivid experience can emerge from a dysfunctional brain during the process of dying is a neuroscientific paradox. Dr. Borjigin has led an important study that helps shed light on the underlying neurophysiologic mechanisms,” Mashour says.

The team identified four patients who passed away due to cardiac arrest in the hospital while under EEG monitoring. All four of the patients were comatose and unresponsive. They were ultimately determined to be beyond medical help and, with their families’ permission, removed from life support.

Upon removal of ventilator support, two of the patients showed an increase in heart rate along with a surge of gamma wave activity, considered the fastest brain activity and associated with consciousness.

Furthermore, the researchers detected the activity in the so-called hot zone of neural correlates of consciousness in the brain, the junction between the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes in the back of the brain. This area has been correlated with dreaming, visual hallucinations in epilepsy, and altered states of consciousness in other brain studies.

These two patients had previous reports of seizures, but no seizures during the hour before their deaths, says Nusha Mihaylova, a clinical associate professor in the neurology department who has collaborated with Borjigin since 2015 by collecting EEG data from deceased patients under ICU care.

The other two patients did not display the same increase in heart rate upon removal from life support nor did they have increased brain activity.

Because of the small sample size, the authors caution against making any global statements about the implications of the findings. They also note that it’s impossible to know in this study what the patients experienced because they did not survive.

“We are unable to make correlations of the observed neural signatures of consciousness with a corresponding experience in the same patients in this study,” Mihaylova says. “However, the observed findings are definitely exciting and provide a new framework for our understanding of covert consciousness in the dying humans.”

Larger, multi-center studies including EEG-monitored ICU patients who survive cardiac arrest, could provide much needed data to determine whether or not these bursts in gamma activity are evidence of hidden consciousness even near death.

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of Michigan