TED Conversations

Veronica Shalotenko

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 14 2012: What makes a living organism function is the huge number and complexity of electrochemical reactions. From my point of view as a chemist, there is no precise point of when an organism changes the state from living to dead, but it's a process until all electrochemical reactions shut down. I would define death as the moment when all electrochemical reactions that are characteristic for a living organism cease to occur (obviously other chemical reactions such as decomposition will continue long after death).
    • Mar 14 2012: I like this idea. I think true death should be defined as the cessation of brain activity and all bodily functions. I am convinced by stories of people returning to life from brain death that being brain dead is not a sufficient enough condition to think a person can never make it back.
      As for thinking about whether the law should take on this definition, I see the new definition greatly hindering the harvest of good quality organs. I assume organ donors have to sign something before it is ok to take their organs out if they are in the situation of brain death. They should be aware of the fact that brain death does not necessarily mean the end and that this is what they are agreeing to. Perhaps they should also consider if they still want to live after an extended period of time of being brain dead. As long as the donor is aware and fine with all this, I don’t see a problem with organ donation during brain death.
      There seems to be a lot of discussion on this topic. A Google search returns a podcast such as this: http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=exactly-when-is-a-person-dead-10-09-23

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