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Researching Mind & Brain During Clinical Death

One of the most intriguing questions to have faced human kind is, what really happens to us during and after death? Although many people have a somewhat philosophical idea about death, in which they believe that death is defined as a moment, the reality from a scientific point of view couldn’t be further from the truth. Death has traditionally been defined when three biological parameters are met: 1) there is no heart beat, 2) there is no breathing and 3) there is no brain function – this is determined when a light is shone into the eyes and there are fixed dilated pupils which indicate a lack of brain stem activity. The brain stem is an area of the brain that keeps us alive.

Death, as indicated from the above three parameters, follows very quickly from the moment when the heart stops beating and this is due to a lack of blood flow into the vital organs including the brain itself. Within a few seconds of the cessation of activity in the heart, the criteria for death are met and a person can be announced dead. When the three criteria have been met is usually defined as the time of death.

Interestingly, however, if medical science allows us to restart the heart quickly after the person has "died," then the person can be brought back to life again. Therefore death is very much a reversible process and more importantly is a biological process that goes along a continuum. It is, in fact, not a moment but simply a process.

This process begins when the heart stops beating and continues on while cells in the body (including the brain) become damaged due to the effects of lack of oxygen and blood supply. If we follow this process, after a few minutes, brain cells start to undergo some changes that relate to this lack of oxygen state and as time continues to go on, the cells undergo more and more changes and ultimately die either through a process of literally starting to disintegrate or imploding from within. The process of cell death thus really begins as soon as the heart stops beating due to the effects of lack of oxygen but continues for many tens of minutes if not hours until eventually all the remnants of the cells also disintegrate and we are left with nothing other than bones.

One the most fascinating questions that we face is at what point after we die do we lose our mind and consciousness? Is this immediately after the heart stops beating? Is it a few minutes, tens of minutes, or hours after? With this in mind, how should we define death? Should death be defined from the moment the heart stops beating or should it be defined when a certain amount of brain cell damage has taken place? Should we define death based upon a time when the human mind and consciousness no longer exists?

Evidence has shown that if the heart can be restarted after the criteria for death have been met; then, an individual can be brought back to life and the human mind and consciousness can remain intact. Recent studies of near death experiences during an objective period of clinical death (in other words, a cardiac arrest) have also demonstrated that at least 10-20% of people who have undergone a period of reversible death will have some cognitive memories from that period and a smaller proportion of them will have clear recollections of exactly what was going on and what had been happening to them during cardiac arrest and death. This raises the fascinating prospect that the human mind and consciousness may continue for a period of time after we have reached the point of death.

This particular phenomena is the subject of the International Study called the AWARE (awareness during resuscitation) Study which has been partially funded and supported by the Horizon Research Foundation together with the Resuscitation Council (UK) and a number of other foundations. It is hoped that the results of this study will start to shed light on this phenomena.

One day we and our loved ones will face a most uncertain journey – a journey into the unknown – a journey into this process we call death. What does death really mean? Does it mean that we are annihilated? Does it mean there is a period or a transition? Does it mean that there is something that exists of us after we are clinically dead? These of course are questions that have fascinated human kind from the beginning of time and although many philosophers, scholars and even more recent times scientists have attempted to answer these questions, most of the views expressed have been ultimately subjective and personal.

Undoubtedly many people have used great arguments to support their own particular view points but it has never been possible to study this phenomena through an objective and scientific manner. It is important to know that science has finally managed to reach a point where it can investigate what happens when we die.

Through the AWARE and Brain 1 studies of the Human Consciousness Project, which is a multi disciplinary collaboration of scientists and physicians with an interest in studying the human mind, brain and consciousness during clinical death, we will be able to potentially answer some of the most intriguing questions that have faced human kind since the beginning of time. What happens to the brain and our body after we die? At what point do we lose our sense of self and our awareness of who we are after we die, is this immediate, does this take place after a few seconds or hours? Does this take place at all?

We hope that by following our journey into this mysterious and unknown field you will share with us both the highs and lows of the Human Consciousness Project as well as its first research studies – Brain 1 and AWARE.

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