A lasting memory

23rd February 2022. Reading Time: 8 minutes General. 1062 page views. 0 comments.

Doctors have accidentally recorded brain activity while a patient unexpectedly died giving an indication of what a person experiences just before their physical body dies. It is intriguing and poses a lot of questions for 'What's next?'

It is one of the questions that we will probably never consciously know the answer to.  "What do we experience when we die?".  It is quite a natural curiosity not just for our own benefit, but we also take some comfort in knowing our loved ones have not suffered.  A new study has indicated something which has long been suspected - that as we die our brain replays our fondest memories.  I liken it to a movie montage giving us the comfort of all the amazing things we have lived and experienced and preparing us for whatever is next.

The first indications that this is what people experience come from those who have had what is called a Near Death Experience (NDE).

Near-Death Experiences

It is estimated that around 1/3 of people who have died and come back, often those who suffer a cardiac arrest report what is called a Near Death Experience.   The term was coined by Dr. Raymond Moody in 1975 in his book Life After Life.  Dr. Moody recorded and also compared the experiences of 150 people who were clinically dead or almost dead and recovered and came back to life. 

One of the arguments from the Scientific community is that an NDE is simply the way the brain is reacting to effectively shutting down.  Neuroscientists Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez suggest that there are two types of Near-Death Experiences.

  1. The first is in the brain's left hemisphere which makes a person feel like they are flying and an altered sense of time.
  2. The second is in the brain's right hemisphere where people believe they are communicating with spirits or see people, light, hear voices or music

It is also believed that the temporal lobe plays a significant part.  This area is responsible for processing sensory information and memories so if this is disturbed, it could cause a person to feel, hear or see things that aren't happening, remember things differently, or even lose memories.  

Image Source CNN

While the above is one possible explanation, one of the more curious things about an NDE is that in many cases, it has been a shared experience by more than one person in a single event which is why it is such a fascinating and much-debated topic.

What I can’t figure out is this—if it’s something physical, then why should bystanders sometimes share in a person’s NDE? This surgeon in Italy, for instance, told me that he was doing an elective operation on a fairly young man in good health. The patient had a cardiac arrest and the doctor was unable to resuscitate him. All of a sudden, the doors of the operating room were flung open and there was this woman.

She said, “I was out in the waiting room and my husband came to me. He told me to tell you that he’s not dead.” The doctor resumed the resuscitation and the patient’s heart started beating again. The first thing the patient said was, “I was up above my body and I kept trying to tell you I wasn’t dead, but you couldn’t hear me. So I told my wife.”

I hear from people all the time about how they participate in someone else’s NDE—that indicates that the experience is not due to oxygen deprivation to the brain.

Dr Raymond Moody

https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/life-after-death/dr-raymond-moody-the-secrets-of-the-afterlife

There have been various studies in this field to try and understand Near-Death Experiences, not just from collecting experiences from people, but also analysing any changes in brain activity.  Some results have indicated a surge in brain activity which could induce certain a near-death experience.

Lakhmir Chawla and colleagues (2009) reported that patients who were at end of life and had life support withdrawn – that is, no medications, IV infusions, or machine ventilation – exhibited a surge of electroencephalographic (EEG) activity just prior to complete arrest of blood flow and death. The researchers speculated that a similar surge of electrical brain activity may account for the near-death experiences (NDEs) of patients who suffer cardiac arrest but are revived. The observed EEG surges appear of sufficient duration and strength as to account for the vivid experiences reported in NDE.

Mays, Robert & Mays, Suzanne. (2011). Near-Death Experiences and EEG Surges at End of Life. Journal of Near-Death Studies. 29. 488. 10.17514/JNDS-2011-29-4-p488-493.. 

It seems that by accident, Doctors have recorded similar activity in a patient that died while their brain was being monitored by an EEG.  Does this show us that there could be more to NDE's?

What happens to our brain before we die?

Doctors accidentally measured a brain as it died while being monitored by an electroencephalogram (EEG).  The 87-year-old patient who was being treated for epilepsy suddenly had a heart attack and passed.  While this is very sad, the patient has perhaps unknowingly made history.  In the 30 seconds before and after their heart stopped beating, an increase in extremely specific brain waves were noticed.  These waves called gamma oscillations, are linked to things like memory retrieval, meditation and dreaming.

Previous studies on Rodent have shown similar increases in gamma oscillations.  There is no precedent set for human observation as there are a lot of ethical considerations in place among other things.  While it is something that has been speculated, to now have for the first time some actual data (even though only one case) is an interesting subject.  Details from the report published by Frontiers in Neuroscience are below.

Near-death experience (NDE) has been reported in situations where the brain transitions toward death. Subjective descriptions of this phenomenon are described as intense and surreal and include a panoramic life review with memory recalls, transcendental and out-of-body experiences with dreaming, hallucinations and a meditative state (Vanhaudenhuyse et al., 2007). The neurophysiological signature of this phenomenon is unclear. It is hypothesized that the brain may generate a memory replay within this “unconscious” phase with an increase in oscillatory activity (Mobbs and Watt, 2011; Facco and Agrillo, 2012; Greyson et al., 2012; Borjigin et al., 2013). In healthy subjects, neural oscillations provide a temporal frame for information processing of perception, consciousness and memory during waking, dreaming and meditation (Llinás and Paré, 1991; Llinas and Ribary, 1993; Llinás et al., 1998; Lutz et al., 2004; Beauregard and Paquette, 2008; Fries, 2009). Particularly, enhanced thalamocortical activity, increase of gamma power and long-range gamma synchronization (> 35Hz) has been identified in conscious perception (Llinás et al., 1998; Tononi et al., 1998; Rodriguez et al., 1999; Singer, 2001; Varela et al., 2001). Alpha-band oscillations are the dominant band in the human brain, important for information processing, especially in the visual cortex, and are likely to have an inhibitory function on cortical areas that are not in use (Klimesch, 2012). A similar inhibitory function also has been suggested for delta band activity, which may suppress networks that are not essential for task accomplishment (Harmony, 2013). Theta rhythms play a critical role in memory recall, especially in verbal and spatial memory tasks as well as during meditation (Kahana et al., 2001; Siapas et al., 2005). The intricate interplay among these bands and cross-frequency coupling account for long-range neuronal communication, perception and memory retrieval (Canolty et al., 2006; Jensen and Colgin, 2007; Tort et al., 2009; Harmony, 2013). As such, memory flashbacks during recall of NDEs have been linked with oscillatory activity, similar to real life memory recall (Chawla et al., 2009, 2017; Palmieri et al., 2014).

The classic view of a hypoactive brain during the near-death phase has been challenged by recent evidence demonstrating end-of-life electrical surges (ELES) (Chawla et al., 2009, 2017; Mays and Mays, 2011). In rodents, increased cortico-cardiac and anterior-posterior connectivity, phase-coupling between gamma oscillations to alpha and theta waves and an increase in gamma-band oscillatory activity was identified in the first 30 s after cardiac arrest (Borjigin et al., 2013; Li et al., 2015). Beside cardiac arrest, a surge of gamma oscillations has been observed immediately upon asphyxia and hypercapnia (Li et al., 2015; Martial et al., 2020). Thus far, reports investigating the neural correlates of NDEs stem from experimental studies in animals, from measurements that were obtained during NDE recall, rather than real-time recording during the NDE itself, or from simplified EEG recordings in palliative patients (Borjigin et al., 2013; Palmieri et al., 2014; Martial et al., 2020). The neurophysiological processes occurring in the dying human brain have yet, to our understanding, not been reported for patients in real-life acute settings since capturing of full standard EEG activity in the transitory phase to death is rare and cannot be planned experimentally. Here, we report what is to our knowledge the first continuous EEG recording from the human brain in the transition phase to death. We find decreased theta activity and an increase of absolute gamma power after bilateral suppression of neuronal activity. Post cardiac arrest, relative gamma-band power is increased while delta, beta and alpha bands show reduced activity. Finally, we observe strong modulation of narrow- and broad-band gamma activity by the alpha band.

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnagi.2022.813531/full#B43

While of course there would need to be a lot more data for anything to be offered as 'proof' it is a really interesting insight and what our body goes through in its final moments.  What do you think?  Do we have a memory playback before we pass?

References

https://www.thesun.co.uk/health/17734253/brain-recording-moment-death-thoughts/

Enhanced Interplay of Neuronal Coherence and Coupling in the Dying Human Brain Raul Vicente1,2†, Michael Rizzuto3†, Can Sarica4, Kazuaki Yamamoto4, Mohammed Sadr3, Tarun Khajuria2, Mostafa Fatehi3, Farzad Moien-Afshari5, Charles S. Haw3, Rodolfo R. Llinas6, Andres M. Lozano4, Joseph S. Neimat7 and Ajmal Zemmar1,4,7* (2022)

https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnagi.2022.813531 

Vanhaudenhuyse, A., Thonnard, M., and Laureys, S. (2007). “Towards a neuro-scientific explanation of near-death experiences?,” in Yearbook of Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, Vol. 2009, ed. J. L. Vincent (Berlin: Springer). doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-92278-2_85

https://edition.cnn.com/2013/04/09/health/belgium-near-death-experiences/index.html

Mays, Robert & Mays, Suzanne. (2011). Near-Death Experiences and EEG Surges at End of Life. Journal of Near-Death Studies. 29. 488. 10.17514/JNDS-2011-29-4-p488-493.. 

Header Image: Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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