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Student , Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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How does life/death manifest itself in the human brain? Is brain death the ultimate end stage of life?

Recently, I watched the TED talk “Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor (http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html), in which she discusses the experience of having a stroke from a scientific perspective. She was able to diagnose herself throughout the process, even as her brain functions slowed or stopped altogether. Her story gives rise to a very important question: what is the connection between life, death, and the human brain?

In my Bioelectricity class this week, we discussed the use of EEG’s to record brain waves. A patient whose EEG reading shows a lack of brain activity is declared to be “brain dead.” In the medical community, “brain death” is considered to be equivalent to “death.” However, many consider this definition of death to be problematic. Even when a patient exhibits a lack of brain activity, her or she may still have functioning organs. The circulatory and respiratory systems, for instance, have been observed to be active in people who are brain dead. Is it really appropriate to define death as the cessation of brain function? Or, should the medical definition of death be modified from its current form?

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  • Mar 10 2012: Great question and I agree that we need to reconcile the definition of death. Because the truth is that too many people are claiming experience after death for the existence of that energy to remain unexplored.

    Consider that thought (synaptic transmission), we now say, can travel faster than light (kills the nothing faster than light theory), that meditation masters can stop their hearts (make it flutter at undetectable rate), Paralyze their skin to achieve seeming miracles (walk on coals, lay on beds of nails, and spears, and others can swim to great depths / process the air in water etc), things that they themselves contribute to the same understanding that this scientist discovered in her "experience". Time to despell the "life is finite" lie as well.

    Religions, all, including Hinduism and Buddhism, are talking about that same oneness (omnipresent expanding consciousness, GOD), mimicking the factually expanding universe. With all of our technologies and knowledge of light, and magnetic field spectrums, you'd think people would apply it to observing that energy when people died to know the answer, and have a better definition of death. Maybe then we can find ways to retrieve people from brain death before they are too far gone (pun intended).
    • Mar 10 2012: There are studies being conducted to determine if a person that is brain dead has truly passed on. Now a recent study I read about was about saving stroke victims by cooling their bodies to 92 degrees. Why? Because victims who were pronounced dead after being under water for more than two hours, falling through ice, were brought back it life with little to no permanent damage to brain or any other organ for that matter. It had to do with the cells in our bodies survival. Tradional methods call for oxygen which actually produces the opposit effect and kills cells. Leading to permanent brain damage or death.

      When are we truly dead? Those that have experienced the white light effect or tunnel all had the same experiences. PET Scans show activity but with medically brain dead victims there was no activity.

      I would like to know more and do agree there does need to be more research.
      • Mar 10 2012: Mario, you bring up an excellent point about people who are seemingly dead being “jolted” awake by random external stimuli. There are many accounts dating back to the late 19th/early 20th century of seemingly dead patients “coming back to life” right before their funerals. There are also plenty of current news stories detailing such miraculous awakenings. Recently, I read a story about a 76-year old woman in Canada who was declared brain dead after spending a prolonged time in a vegetative state (http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/brain-dead-quebec-woman-wakes-up-after-family-refuses-organ-donation/). Doctors even recommended her for organ donation, yet she managed to wake up without significant brain damage.

        Perhaps, if more studies are conducted into the nature of the external stimuli sufficient to jump-start the human brain, more patients can be successfully brought out of a vegetative state. The way in which each individual’s brain processes information is unique. I have a hunch that the “right” stimulus will vary from person to person. However, I am sure that with enough effort, some sort of pattern can be detected, thus enabling doctors to provide a vegetative patient with an appropriate stimulus.
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          Mar 13 2012: Although we all might disagree on precise definitions of death, none of us expects my great great grandmother to jump up out of the ground and knock on your door. It seems that some of these "definitions" of death are actually only symptoms that tend to be highly indicative of death--no heart rate, no EEG, etc.

          So who decides what is the point of no return? Assuming the existence of a scientific answer, perhaps it could be found through a massive study of different patient characteristics over time: EEG, ECG, presence of particular chemicals in the blood. But how much do we expect to learn, after humans have already been watching people die for thousands and thousands of years? Even if we get results that are meaningful to somebody, it will certainly not be interpreted the same by everyone.

          So, perhaps its better to just assume that there is no scientific answer, no specific point of no return. What do you do when your loved one may or may not be in the process of dying? Is there a point when you shouldn't be allowed to decide how to care for your spouse or child? These of course are hard-hitting questions for some. Trying to keep this conversation out of the political sphere, I only venture to argue that this is a social question, the implications of which reach far beyond the patient and family. People deal with loss and tragedy in many different ways, and sometimes these situations have much greater impacts on those still living or soon to be living than on those passing on.

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