Nobody knows what really happens at the last moment. Now, a German team has been able to monitor what happens in our most vital organ moments before death
One of the questions that most scientists do, and certainly many people in general, is what will happen to our brain in the moments before the death. A group of researchers has managed to answer that question: a wave of electrical activity called ” extended depression .”
The experts examined brain activity in dying patients and observed a flurry of movement that seems to precede the fatal closure of our most vital organ. The finding suggests that consciousness may still be present many minutes after the rest of the body has ceased to show signs of life, which increases the possibility that, at least up to five minutes, the process of shutting down the brain can be reversed.
One last sigh
A team of neurologists from the Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, one of the largest hospitals in Europe, continuously monitored electrical signals in the brains of nine people as they died. Each of the patients in the German capital and also in the city of Cincinnati (Ohio, USA) had suffered fatal brain injuries and doctors had orders not to ” resuscitate” them.
The study does not have a direct effect on today’s patients but may lead to better diagnostic procedures in the future.
Scientists hoped that by implanting electrodes in the brains of their test subjects they could discover the mechanisms and the exact timing of death. They discovered that even five minutes after a person’s heart stops beating, their neurons could still function.
In addition, it was discovered how a wave of ” expansive depression ” marked the moment when these brain cells went out, just before an irreversible end. The main author of the study, Dr. Jens Dreier, explained that “after circulatory arrest, the spread of depolarization marks the loss of electrochemical energy stored in the neurons and the appearance of toxic processes that eventually lead to death.”
Propagation of depolarization
The cells die when the blood stops flowing, depriving them of the oxygen they need as fuel to function. When this happens, the brain cells turn to the energy reserves for a few minutes before they go out completely: this happens when the mechanisms that the neurons use to keep the separated ions start to fail.
The breaking of the barriers between these particles releases a massive amount of electrochemical energy in the brain as neurons try to frantically consume the fuel. This process, known as the propagation of depolarization or the spread of depression, is characterized by hyperactivity in neurons, followed by sudden silence. However, this only marks the final countdown to death and can be temporarily reversed, the researchers discovered.
Consciousness can still be present many minutes after the rest of the organism has stopped showing signs of life.
The subject of the debate remains exactly how long. A final “wave” of energy seems to mark the point at which the neurons are firing for the last time, although the research team warned that it can still be an unreliable marker for the death.
The end of consciousness
“The chemical changes that lead to death begin with depolarization ,” Dr. Jed Hartings of the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine and member of the research team explained to Newsweek : “We have never had a method to diagnose the brain dead and we do not have a way to be sure when all the capacity of conscience is lost “
While the study does not have a direct effect on patients today, it may lead to better diagnostic and treatment procedures in the future. The findings may be useful for developing strategies and treating cardiac arrest and stroke. They can also add data about the debate about organ donation after a cardiac death, declared two to ten minutes after the heart stops beating.
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