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Researchers affirm potential links to near-death experiences in dying human brains

Can the human brain activate while dying? A new study indicates that it’s possible.

(CN) — White light. Voices. Visits from loved ones. Out-of-body hovering. Theses are all experiences often associated with near-death experiences, but ones that confound science where cardiac arrest is concerned, as the brain is long thought to cease functioning during such medical crises.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on Monday, however, indicate that the human brain may activate during the dying process.

By analyzing the electroencephalograms of four dying patients before and after the withdrawal of their ventilation support, researchers found that the resulting hypoxia in two patients stimulated brain activity correlated with consciousness.  

The study, led by Jimo Borjigin, associate professor in the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology and the Department of Neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School, sought to make sense of the near-death experiences described by 10-20% of cardiac arrest survivors.

Previously, Borjigin and her team conducted groundbreaking animal studies with Dr. George Mashour, founding director of the Michigan Center for Consciousness Science, which found signatures of gamma wave activation — the fastest brain activity associated with consciousness — in the dying brains of rats upon the loss of oxygen following cardiac arrest.

“Elevation of high-frequency oscillations, a candidate marker of consciousness, has been reported previously in patients dying from critical illnesses,” the researcher states. “In healthy animals, our group reported that sudden termination of cardiac function or acute asphyxia stimulated high levels of gamma activities, including a global increase of functional and directed connectivity in gamma oscillations.”

The same signatures, researchers say, were present in two of the patients they studied.

“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 said in a statement.

Borjigin and her team studied four dying patients that were comatose and unresponsive. With the patients’ families’ permission, they were removed from life support and died of cardiac arrest in the hospital under electroencephalogram monitoring.

After removing the patients from ventilator support, two of the patients experienced an increased heart rate along with a surge of gamma wave activity in the junction between the temporal, parietal and occipital lobes in the back of the brain — a region that previous brain studies have correlated with dreaming, visual hallucinations in epilepsy and altered states of consciousness.

Researchers note in the study that the two patients had previously experienced seizures but not in the hour before their deaths. The other two patients did not experience an increased heart rate nor brain activity.

Due to the studies’ small sample size, Borjigin says it’s best not to make any major claims about the findings. She also told Courthouse News that because the patients didn’t survive, it’s impossible to know what they truly experienced before death.

“Based on the neuro signatures we discovered, they might have seen a white light. They might have been able to hear conservations surrounding them. They might have had out of body experiences. They might have had life review. The neuro signatures were, as far as we’re concerned, there in our data, but until that can be correlated with somebody’s adaptive experience, we could not really claim that,” Borjigin said.

The team says the empirical evidence of the study strongly suggests that the dying brain can be activated, and their research establishes a foundation to further study covert consciousness during cardiac arrest, that could serve as a model system to explore mechanisms of human consciousness.

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