By Jeff Parsons
What happens when we die?
Scientists may finally be in a position to answer that question after they recorded the brain waves of a patient as her life ended.
Crucially, they didn’t set out to capture this data – instead it ocurred by happenstance.
Researchers in the United States were running an electroencephalogram (EEG) on an 87-year-old man who suffered from epilepsy.
An EEG measures the electrical activity of your brain and, in this case, was being used to detect the onset of seizures.
However, during the treatment, the patient had a heart attack and died.
As such, the scientists were able to record 15 minutes of brain activity around his death. And what they found was extremely interesting.
Focusing on the 30 seconds either side of the moment the patient’s heart stopped beating, they detected an increase in brain waves known as gamma oscillations.
These waves are also involved in activities such as meditation, memory retrieval and dreaming.
We can’t say for sure whether dying people really do see their life flash before their eyes, but this particualar study seems to support the idea.
And the scientists say the brain is capable of co-ordinated activity for a short period even after the blood stops flowing through it.
‘Through generating oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be playing a last recall of important life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences,’ said Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience.
‘These findings challenge our understanding of when exactly life ends and generate important subsequent questions, such as those related to the timing of organ donation.’
In the study, the researchers point out that similar changes in brainwaves have been detected in rats at the time of death.
However, this is the first time it’s been seen in a human.
Dr. Zemmar and his team say that further research needs to be done before drawing any definite conclusions.
This study arises from data relating to just a single case study. And the patient’s brain had already been injured and was showing unusual activity related to epilepsy.
It’s not clear if the same results would occur in a different person’s brain at the time of death.
‘Something we may learn from this research is: although our loved ones have their eyes closed and are ready to leave us to rest, their brains may be replaying some of the nicest moments they experienced in their lives,’ Dr. Zemmar said.
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