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A Study Reveals Brain Hot Zones Spike in the Moments Just Before Death

Jul 07, 2023

Study shows a surge of activity in a dying brain, leading to more questions about human neurology.

The gamma wave activity of two patients shortly before death is considered the fastest brain activity possible.

Researchers remain unsure what the data means, but it could show evidence of "hidden consciousness" near death.

The mysterious near-death-experiences we’re eager to understand may have some additional scientific backing, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. That backing comes in the form of conscious-like brain activity observed in comatose patients immediately prior to their death.

A study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, highlights how two comatose patients—who died after a cardiac arrest event—had a sudden spike in gamma wave activity in the brain and a bump in heart rate after they were removed from a ventilator.

Gamma wave activity is not only the fastest brain activity. It's also closely associated with consciousness. To make matters more intriguing, the activity was found in the "hot zone" of the brain—the junction between the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes in the back—an area connected to dreaming and altered states of consciousness.

What this all means, though, we aren't quite sure yet.

"We are unable to make correlations of the observed neural signatures of consciousness with a corresponding experience in the same patients in this study," says Nusha Mihaylova, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Neurology who has collaborated with study lead Jimo Borjigin, associate professor in the Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and the Department of Neurology, in a news release. "However, the observed findings are definitely exciting and provide a new framework for our understanding of cover consciousness in the dying humans."

The study had four subjects, all comatose and unresponsive in the hospital following cardiac arrest. Two of the four showed no increase in heart rate or increased gamma activity, while the other two did.

"How vivid experience can emerge from a dysfunctional brain during the process of dying is a neuroscientific paradox," says George Mashour, the founding director of the Michigan Center for Consciousness Science, in a news release.

With the gamma activity spiking as it did—and where it did—for the two patients, the researchers are eager to broaden the study to include EEG-monitored ICU patients who survive cardiac arrest. After all, as they admit, not being able to communicate with the dying patients limits their understanding. Gaining a broader wealth of data could provide much-needed insight to determine what really happens in the brain right before we die.

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