Recent studies have revealed an increase in brain activity just before death. The activity occurs in a region of the brain associated with dreams and other forms of altered awareness.
The findings, according to researchers, may help explain the dramatic near-death experiences (bright lights, hallucinations) that patients who were in danger of dying have described.
What transpires to our consciousness once we pass away?
When it comes to the human condition, it’s conceivably the biggest query and a major source of anxiety.
People who have had near-death encounters may be able to give a tantalizing view of how our dying minutes would feel and appear. People have reported having intense experiences that include seeing deceased loved ones, seeing dazzling lights, and having the sensation of flying through the air. Many of these encounters are startlingly similar to one another.
Although many people perceive near-death experiences through a religious or philosophical lens, University of Michigan researchers have researched the phenomenon on a scientific level and discovered a surge in brain activity at the moment of death.
This week, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science published their findings.
The study was directed by Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Michigan’s Departments of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and Neurology. It expands on prior studies that revealed a neuronal surge in the dying brains of animal test participants.
Although the study has its limitations, experts think it’s a huge step towards understanding the underlying causes of dramatic near-death experiences and provides a window into what our final minutes might be like.
Studying near-death experiences can be challenging.
While performing tests on animals is rather straightforward, studying people who are nearing the end of their lives is challenging from both an ethical and practical standpoint.
To determine whether the human brain responded to death in the same way as the rat brain, Prof. Borjigin and her team wanted to do justice to the earlier research.
To achieve this, researchers looked at the brain activity of four patients who passed away while having an EEG (electrogram) machine on them in hospitals.
Prof. Borjigin explained that even though there were just four patients, “the data generated is massive, so we were only able to report a fraction of the features that it’s actually showing on the data.”
The TPJ region of the brain, so termed because it is the junction between the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes in the rear of the brain, was active at the time of death.
According to Prof. Borjigin, “I really wanted to be able to define something in the brain that can possibly explain that subjective near-death experience.” If some of these patients had lived to tell their tales, they might have, but sadly they didn’t.
Brain activity while dying
Researchers looked at four patients who died from cardiac arrest while their EEGs were being monitored. The patients were taken off life support because they were unconscious, unresponsive, and unable to receive any more medical attention.
Two patients demonstrated a rise in heart rate and a spike in gamma wave activity in the brain, which is the fastest sort of activity and is associated with consciousness, after being taken off the ventilator.
The region of the brain connected to dreaming, visual hallucinations in epilepsy, and altered states of consciousness was also where the activity was discovered.
One of the study’s authors and associate professor at the University of Michigan’s departments of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and Neurology, Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., outlined the key findings of the research.
According to Borjigin, the dying process can first engage the brain. “Secondly, we must look at how the brain functions during cardiac arrest. If the brain is more active while a person is dying, why? Before our study, we were unaware of some brain processes.”
Though it is hard to know what the patients went through during these brain surges, the heightened TPJ activity may be able to shed some light on why certain people have extremely vivid near-death experiences.
The increase in brain activity indicated covert consciousness, or consciousness that cannot be seen by bedside tests because the patient is disabled, even if the patients weren’t visually conscious.
According to Prof. Borjigin, “people who have had near-death experiences] may remember seeing or hearing things, as well as having an out-of-body experience or motion perception as if they are flying.” “I believe that we may have identified or described the bare minimum anatomical processes leading to covert consciousness neuro signatures“.
“We would like to be able to examine humans in less traumatic situations where the patients are known to be able to live and then tell the story where they can relate their brain signature to a personal experience“.
Patients who survive cardiac arrest while being monitored by an EEG device could be questioned to see if their brain waves correlate with their experience to make this conclusion.
In any case, examining the brain waves of terminally ill people can help us better comprehend the dying process, which is still relatively mysterious.
It may be possible to get fresh insight into the nature of consciousness by investigating how the pulmonary system, cardiac system, and brain interact.
what happens as we die?
Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neurologist, the head of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital, said, “We don’t fully know the answer to this question.” Before this study, it was believed that the brain simply stopped working, but several additional studies of a similar nature reveal that there is unique brain activity connected to the close-to-death state.
The temporoparietal junction and the prefrontal cortex, two regions of the brain linked to cognitive functions, were revealed to be implicated in the study.
The sympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s “fight-or-flight” reaction, has been linked to these parts of the brain, according to Newberg, who also noted that spiritual experiences have been linked to these regions of the brain as well.
A bioethicist responds to the research
The study’s main finding is that the dying process causes some chemical alterations in the brain. It clarifies why individuals think they can see angels or a light at the end of the tunnel, according to Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at NYU Langone Medical Centre in New York. What it demonstrates is that the brain has mechanisms in place to try and rouse itself awake and that it can shoot off in hallucinatory ways.
Many people are interested in what occurs after death, but this study is in its early stages and doesn’t explore that topic, he added.
“In some respects, our study clarifies people’s anxiety that perhaps they will suffer as they are about to pass away at the last minute, even if that doesn’t appear to be the case. However, this study suggests that you don’t have any insights into what really happens when you pass away, so people may be let down,” Caplan said.
A recent study found that comatose individuals who died from cardiac arrest experienced an increase in brain activity that resembled conscious awareness.
The area of the brain that is linked to dreaming, visual hallucinations in epilepsy, and altered states of consciousness were where the activity was discovered.
Experts are optimistic that by pursuing this research avenue and knowing more about the dying brain, they will one day be able to save cardiac arrest victims.
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