Death has fascinated humans since the dawn of time. That’s why there are so many pop culture references to death not just now– music (country is famous for this), 13 Reasons Why on Netflix–, but times long gone as well.
A curiosity of what happens to us when we die has also been a driving factor in all the major world religions.
So why should science look at why happens when we die? That’s just what this research team did– what happens to the brain as we die.
The researchers were located in Germany and the U.S. at emergency centers. They had 9 patients who had a variety of serious brain problems. Serious enough that they were taken off life support, so they could pass away. Before they were taken off, the researchers asked their families if these people could give one last gift to the world– letting us watch their brains die. These 9 amazing families consented to have brain signal monitors placed on their loved ones brains. Then they pulled the plug and waited.
Each case was slightly different of course, but they also had similarities. In the majority of cases, when the heart stopped beating, the brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen to keep going. This usually took a few seconds to a few minutes. At this point, the brain knew something was up, so it went into a “sleep mode,” like a computer does when you’re not using it, to conserve energy. The brain recognized that it’s energy is going to rapidly deplete, so it shuts off all non-essential functions and goes quiet. It stays like that for several minutes, until it can no longer support even the essential functions and then it undergoes a massive depolarization. That means basically that every neuron in the brain fires all at once as it turns off completely. That’s brain death.
This had been seen in animals before, but never recorded in humans until now. I will say that I experienced that massive depolarization when my cat passed away. She had gone down suddenly and had been very still for several minutes. But then all of a sudden, her whole body contracted very strongly. I thought maybe she was trying to fight, but no. It was just that depolarization causing all her muscles to fire at once as her little brain shut down.
The reason these folks were looking at this goes beyond morbid curiosity. They’re hoping that by understand the physiology of brain death, other researchers can better develop methods of intervention to halt this pattern and successfully save people. We shall see!
Fun fact: Star Trek mentioned this theory in an episode in 1988. They extrapolated that since that’s what happens in animals, it would happen in humans too. Now it’s been confirmed.