The pioneering study that unravels the mystery of what happens to our brain just before we die

The pioneering study that unravels the mystery of what happens to our brain just before we die


What happens at the time of death?

No one knows exactly and, although scientists have some answers, that remains one of the great mysteries.

Trying to solve it is a path plagued by practical and ethical difficulties .

However, a team of scientists from the University of Charité in Berlin (Germany) and the University of Cincinnati (Ohio, USA), led by Jens Dreier, found a way to make a pioneering study that would provide fascinating information about the neurobiology of death.

They titled the research “Depolarization of terminal diffusion and electrical silence in the death of the human cerebral cortex”, and to carry it out they obtained the consent of the relatives of several patients with existing conditions that required invasive neural monitoring.

All of them had suffered terrible traffic accidents, strokes and cardiac arrests, so there was an order not to resuscitate them.

By working with these patients, scientists discovered that the brains of animals and humans perish in a similar way, but also that there is a remarkable period in which the restoration of brain functioning is, hypothetically, possible .

And it is that the ultimate goal of the study was not merely to observe the final moments of a person’s life, but to understand how others could be saved from death at the last moment in the future .

Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption There is a window of opportunity to restore the functioning of the brain.

In animals …

Much of what was known about brain death before the work of these scientists, was the product of experiments with animals made in the twentieth century.

The known process is:

  • The brain is deprived of oxygen when the cardiovascular system of the body stops.
  • A condition known as cerebral ischemia occurs, in which the lack of necessary chemical components leads to a “complete electrical inactivity” in the brain.
  • It is believed that this so-called brain silencing occurs so that hungry neurons conserve their energy, but it is in vain, because death is about to come.
  • All the important ions escape from the brain cells, since the supplies of adenosine triphosphate, the compound that stores and transports energy throughout the body, are depleted.
  • Tissue recovery becomes impossible.

“The massive and irreversible lesion of these cells develops in less than 10 minutes when the circulation ceases completely,” the authors explain in their article.

In humans …

Person with cloud brain
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption In the human brain, everything was an enigma.

But the team wanted to have more details about what happened in the specific case of humans, something that was still riddled with riddles.

To do this, he monitored the neurological activity of the brains of patients who should not be resuscitated using a variety of electrode strips or matrices as the events progressed.

First, in eight out of nine of them, the team detected the flash of brain cells trying to stop the inevitable.

Basically, neurons work by filling themselves with charged ions, creating electrical imbalances between them and their environment, which allows them to generate the small shocks that constitute their signals. And maintaining that imbalance, the authors wrote, is a constant effort.

To feed it, these cells drink from the bloodstream, swallowing oxygen and chemical energy. When the body dies and the flow of blood to the brain stops, oxygen deprived neurons try to accumulate the resources that they have left, the researchers explain.

Sending signals from one place to another is a waste of those precious last sips of life.

Therefore, as much as possible, the neurons are silent, and instead use their remaining energy reserves to maintain their internal charges, waiting for the return of a blood flow that will never come.

As this occurs throughout the brain simultaneously without gradually spreading, it is called “undispersed depression”.

Heart and brain
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Even though blood circulation stops, the brain keeps trying to stay alive.

This is followed by a “depolarization of diffusion” (SD), which is colloquially known as a “cerebral tsunami”.

It involves a great release of thermal energy because the electrochemical balance that keeps the living cells of the brain collapses, leading to its intoxication and destruction.

All this was observed by the scientists in the patients. And as their oxygen levels dropped precipitously, electrical activity was silenced throughout the brain.

It was then that death came to them.

But, as the study revealed, it may not be as inevitable one day as it is now.

“Expansive depolarization marks the beginning of the toxic cellular changes that eventually lead to death, but it is not a marker of death per se , since depolarization is reversible -to a certain point- with the restoration of energy supply”, he said. said the lead author, Jens Dreier, of the Brain Injury Research Center at the University of Charite, to the science website IFL Science .

The data obtained with the study, published in the specialized journal Annals of Neurology , demarcate the point at which cell resurrection is still possible.

However, there is much more research to be done before this becomes a reality.

Dreier points out that, like death itself, this neurological facet is a “complex phenomenon” for which “there are no easy answers“.

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