Scan Shows Brain Activity After Heart Stops

What happens at the end of life inside the mind of the dying?  This is a question asked by many who are curious about unlocking the mysteries of experiences at the time of death.  A new study, arrived at accidentally when a scan captured moments of brain activity after an 87-year-old patient’s heart failed following surgery, may offer some clues.

In 2016, an elderly epileptic patient underwent surgery for a subdural hematoma – a buildup of blood between the brain and the skull.  The patient began having seizures after the surgery and so his brain was being monitored by an electroencephalogram (EEG).  When the patient at Vancouver General Hospital went into cardiac arrest, the EEG continued to record brain activity as he died and showed a surge of activity 30 seconds after his heart stopped. 

According to a recent CBC News report, although unplanned, the brain scan provided what researchers realized was the first known recording of the dying human brain.  The burst of gamma activity in the brain recorded following cardiac death is associated with memory recall, meditation, and dreaming.  

Although the study suggests that brain activity is the last sign of life when a person dies, more research is needed to understand what exactly happens during the end of life in the brain. Co-author of the study Dr. Ajmal Zemmar hopes to pursue a study that uses an EEG alongside an EKG (electrocardiography) to better test what definitively is the last sign of activity in the body before death.  

If indeed our strongest memories do flash before our mind’s eye as we die, the research may offer comfort to those reaching the end of life, as well as their loved ones, that dying is not something to be feared, and that in the final moments, the brain serves up the happiest memories of life one last time.