Brain may generate memories of life as humans die, study finds

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The human brain may generate memories of life at death, a new study suggests. File photo by Riff/Shutterstock

Researchers believe they may have evidence that human beings’ lives literally “flash before their eyes” as they die.

For what they claim is the first time, neurosurgeon Dr. Ajmal Zemmar and his colleagues recorded the activity of a dying human brain, according to an article published Thursday by the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

In doing so, they said they discovered rhythmic brain wave patterns around the time of death that are similar to those occurring during dreaming, memory recall and meditation.

The findings provide a potential explanation for vivid life recall in near-death experiences, the researchers said.

“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,” said Zemmar, an assistant professor of neurological surgery at the University of Louisville.

“Just before and after the heart stopped working, we saw changes in a specific band of neural oscillations,” or waves, he said.

Brain oscillations, or brain waves, are patterns of rhythmic brain activity normally present in living human brains, according to the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

These oscillations are involved in brain functions such as concentrating, dreaming, meditation, memory retrieval, information processing and conscious perception, the center says.

When an 87-year-old patient of theirs developed epilepsy, Zemmar and his colleagues used continuous electroencephalography, a device that measures brain oscillations, to detect coming seizures and treat the patient.

During one of these recording sessions, the patient had a heart attack and died, the researchers said.

This unexpected event allowed them to record the activity of a dying human brain, albeit one that had suffered damage due to seizures and swelling, they said.

Although Zemmar and his colleagues caution that the findings are based on one case, and need to be confirmed in larger studies, they do echo similar observations made in research involving rats that was published in 2013 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“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,” Zemmar said.

“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,” he said.

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