A team of scientists made a fascinating discovery while analyzing the brain activity of two comatose patients in their final moments.
They noticed a surge in activity in an area of the brain associated with consciousness, even after their hearts stopped beating — findings that could help explain why many report vivid visions during near-death experiences.
But whether the findings are firm evidence that consciousness continues after cardiac arrest remains hazy. For one, the sample size is incredibly small, which makes drawing any definitive conclusions impossible.
Still, the findings are an intriguing glimpse into the neurological processes going on inside a dying brain.
"How vivid experience can emerge from a dysfunctional brain during the process of dying is a neuroscientific paradox," said George Mashour, founding director of the Michigan Center for Consciousness Science, and co-author of a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a statement.
As detailed in the paper, the team discovered a spike in gamma waves in two of four patients after they were withdrawn from life support.
The spikes resemble those observed in animals. In 2013, the same team observed similar flares of brain activity after inducing cardiac arrest in rats.
"These findings prompted us to investigate the neural activity of the brain in the dying patients before and after clinical withdrawal of ventilatory support," the team writes in its new paper.
Intriguingly, the surge in gamma waves was concentrated in a part of the brain associated with dreaming and hallucinations reported by epilepsy patients.
But given the fact that these surges in gamma waves were only observed in two patients, the researchers warn against drawing any premature conclusions.
Besides, there's no way of gathering data from the deceased to figure out what they actually experienced.
"We are unable to make correlations of the observed neural signatures of consciousness with a corresponding experience in the same patients in this study," said co-author Nusha Mihaylova, a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan, in the statement.
"However, the observed findings are definitely exciting and provide a new framework for our understanding of covert consciousness in the dying humans," she added.
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