By Holly Honderich
BBC News, Washington
New data from a scientific “accident” has suggested that life may actually flash before our eyes as we die.
A team of scientists set out to measure the brainwaves of an 87-year-old patient who had developed epilepsy. But during the neurological recording, he suffered a fatal heart attack – offering an unexpected recording of a dying brain.
It revealed that in the 30 seconds before and after, the man’s brainwaves followed the same patterns as dreaming or recalling memories.
Brain activity of this sort could suggest that a final “recall of life” may occur in a person’s last moments, the team wrote in their study, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience on Tuesday.
Dr Ajmal Zemmar, a co-author of the study, said that what the team, then based in Vancouver, Canada, accidentally got, was the first-ever recording of a dying brain.
He told the BBC: “This was actually totally by chance, we did not plan to do this experiment or record these signals.”
So will we get a glimpse back at time with loved ones and other happy memories? Dr Zemmar said it was impossible to tell.
“If I were to jump to the philosophical realm, I would speculate that if the brain did a flashback, it would probably like to remind you of good things, rather than the bad things,” he said.
“But what’s memorable would be different for every person.”
Dr Zemmar, now a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville, said in the 30 seconds before the patient’s heart stopped supplying blood to the brain, his brainwaves followed the same patterns as when we carry out high-cognitive demanding tasks, like concentrating, dreaming or recalling memories.
It continued 30 seconds after the patient’s heart stopped beating – the point at which a patient is typically declared dead.
“This could possibly be a last recall of memories that we’ve experienced in life, and they replay through our brain in the last seconds before we die.”
The study also raises questions about when, exactly, life ends – when the heart stops beating, or the brain stops functioning.
Dr Zemmar and his team have cautioned that broad conclusions can’t be drawn from a study of one. The fact that the patient was epileptic, with a bleeding and swollen brain, complicates things further.
“I never felt comfortable to report one case,” Dr Zemmar said. And for years after the initial recording in 2016, he looked for similar cases to help strengthen the analysis but was unsuccessful.
But a 2013 study – carried out on healthy rats – may offer a clue.
In that analysis, US researchers reported high levels of brainwaves at the point of the death until 30 seconds after the rats’ hearts stopped beating – just like the findings found in Dr Zemmar’s epileptic patient.
The similarities between studies are “astonishing”, Dr Zemmar said.
They now hope the publication of this one human case may open the door to other studies on the final moments of life.
“I think there’s something mystical and spiritual about this whole near-death experience,” Dr Zemmar said. “And findings like this – it’s a moment that scientists lives for.”