This is your brain on electricity

Normal human brain: Well, okay maybe Abby Normal is a better description. It is my brain after all. I had a recent MRI and was really glad to see I had something other than rocks in my head.
Normal human brain: Well, okay maybe Abby Normal is a better description. It is my brain after all. I had a recent MRI and was really glad to see I had something other than rocks in my head.Courtesy Mark Ryan
A new study appearing in the Journal of Palliative Medicine reports how several terminally ill patients all showed identical surges in their brain activity just before they died. At first the doctors at George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates who did the study thought the surge was being caused by interference from life-support machines or other electronic gear in the room.

“But then we started removing things, turning off cell phones and machines, and we saw it was still happening,” said lead author Lakhmir Chawla.

Speculation of what causes the neurological hyperactivity at the moment of death is that neurons in the brain, suddenly deprived of blood pressure and oxygen, shut down in rapid succession resulting in a final burst of neural activity - an electrical death rattle if you will. But the idea doesn’t seem to be a very new one. Kevin Nelson, a researcher studying near-death experiences at the University of Kentucky claims it’s well known that the brain experiences a sudden discharge of electrical energy when blood flow to it is cut off.

So, I’m not sure I see what the big surprise is here. If this is so well-known then why wouldn’t the doctors at George Washington University Medical Associates already know this?

But there’s another part of this that’s interesting. The surge may also be responsible for the "white light" reported by some patients who have had near-death episodes. The lore surrounding this phenomenon is about patients seeing an intense bright light when they're dying. But, according to Chawla, the majority of people involved in such incidents report having no such “white light” occurrence, but merely a vivid memory that may have been burned into their brain by the “final” electrical discharge.

And what about the so-called "out of body experience" patients sometimes report after slipping from the grasp of the Grim Reaper? Well, that, too, could come from the brain's electrical shutdown. A study that appeared in the journal Nature in 2006 reported patients sensing "shadow figures" laying nearby, or hovering above while certain areas of their brains were being stimulated with electrical currents. The charges interfered with the sensory information being received by the brain, and the hallucinations were just the brain's way of making senses of everythingl. The New York Times ran a story about it you can read here.

Bottom line, it looks like all those reported supernatural near-death experiences are just all in your head.

Discovery News story
International Association for Near-Death Studies website

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

BlueBierd's picture
BlueBierd says:

Ooh! This makes sense! We hear of people in the last stages of life, who see and hear, so brain activity must surge before the onset of death. Great article!

posted on Tue, 09/06/2011 - 8:52pm

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