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Living brains, dead bodies: the blurred border between life and death

One of the most terrifying nightmares for anyone is the possibility of ending up buried alive. For this reason, even the ancient cemeteries used to include rudimentary and curious systems, in case some poor devil left in a grave suddenly woke up: bells, lights and even tubes that let air pass into the coffins. Fortunately, medicine has advanced enough to ensure that no one is wrongly certified as a corpse.

However, some prestigious research keeps the debate alive around the concept of death, and of clinical death as the end of life. And we are not talking about metaphysics.

When we die, our body becomes a festival of life: the microbiome that is part of us is dedicated to consuming us after a few hours. But we are not talking about this explosion of life, nor are we talking about metaphysical concepts. Not a few scientific teams have found signs of brain activity hours after the time of death was certified.

In April 2019, Yale University research was able to restore cellular activity in the brains of 32 pigs that had been dead for hours, an underestimated capacity that all mammalian brains would have. However, this activity was exclusively translated into molecular activity, but there were not the electrical impulses necessary to regain consciousness: that is, it was not possible to resuscitate the pigs, but only to provoke cellular activity again in their brains.

As this nobbot article picks up, these studies are not limited to just animals. Canadian scientists managed in 2017 to detect brain activity in an encephalogram in humans who died 30 minutes ago. Another 2014 study even looked at patterns of activity in the brains of several people linked to a state of ‘hyper alert’, moments after having suffered a heart attack. Most of these survivors claimed to have listened to conversations in their environment and remained conscious, even after being declared clinically deceased (between 20 and 30 seconds later).

A problem of ethics

The conclusion that we can draw from these investigations is not the possibility of resurrecting people, or creating zombies; but rather to delve into how the human brain works, which is still very unknown, but mainly to save people who were not yet definitively dead; or even to avoid discarding organs that are healthy to be reused.

With this perspective, Professors Stuart Youngner and Insoo Hyun propose, in a study published in the journal Nature , the need to rethink the category of clinical death. But ethics are also important in these investigations. When trying to restore brain activity, which is usually done with animal models, these can be left in an ambiguous state: neither alive nor dead.

Logically, science today allows us not to bury people who are still clinically alive, which makes these curious mechanisms of ancient cemeteries unnecessary to avoid tragedies. But perhaps a revision is necessary, as some researchers propose, to delineate the border between life and death much more clearly.

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