The first ever recording of a dying brain has provided an insight into what might happen in the moments before we die.
Scientists accidentally captured the most complex human organ as it shut down, revealing an extraordinary snapshot into death.
Neuroscientists were using electroencephalography (EEG) to detect and treat seizures in an 87-year-old patient.
The man, who was being treated for epilepsy, was hooked up to an electroencephalogram, which records brain activity, when he suddenly had a heart attack and died.
However, the electroencephalogram continued recording his brain activity, including the 15 minutes around his death.
Scientists saw that, in the 30 seconds either side of the patient’s final heartbeat, there was an increase in a certain type of brain wave.
These waves, known as gamma oscillations, are associated with more sophisticated cognitive functions and are particularly active when dreaming, meditating and concentrating.
The waves are also linked to memory retrieval and processing information.
The recording suggests that as we die, we experience the same neural activity as we do when we are dreaming, recalling memories, or meditating.
It also raises the question as to whether we might see a flood of our best memories in those final moments, suggesting we really do see our lives “flash before our eyes” through “memory retrieval”.
Alternatively, we may simply enter a dreamlike state that is similar to meditation.
Findings from the study, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, indicate that our brains may remain active and coordinated during and even after the transition to death.
Dr Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville and the study’s organiser, told Frontiers Science News: “We measured 900 seconds of brain activity around the time of death and set a specific focus to investigate what happened in the 30 seconds before and after the heart stopped beating.
“Just before and after the heart stopped working, we saw changes in a specific band of neural oscillations, so-called gamma oscillations, but also in others such as delta, theta, alpha, and beta oscillations.
“Through generating oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be playing a last recall of important life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences.
“These findings challenge our understanding of when exactly life ends and generate important subsequent questions, such as those related to the timing of organ donation.”
While the first-of-its-kind study is based on a single case that additionally involved a patient who was suffering from epilepsy and swelling, Dr Zemmar said he hopes to investigate more cases.
He added that the results gave neuroscientists hope to better understand the “life recall” phenomenon which is often reported by those who have had near-death experiences.