Brain wave recordings obtained during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) offer support to near-death experiences subjectively reported by some people who survive cardiac arrest, according to a novel new study.
“These recalled experiences and brain wave changes may be the first signs of the so-called ‘near-death’ experience, and we have captured them for the first time in a large study,” lead investigator Sam Parnia, MD, PhD, with NYU Langone Health, says in a news release.
Measurable electrical signs of lucid and heightened brain activity during CPR, coupled with stories of recalled near-death experiences, suggest that the human sense of self-identification and consciousness, much like other biological body functions, may not stop completely around the time of death, Parnia adds.
He presented the findings November 6 at a resuscitation science symposium at the American Heart Association (AHA) Scientific Sessions 2022 in Chicago.
The AWARE II Study
“For years, some people in cardiac arrest have reported being lucid, often with a heightened sense of consciousness, while seemingly unconscious and on the brink of death,” Parnia noted in an interview with theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.
“Yet, no one’s ever been able to prove it and a lot of people have dismissed these experiences, thinking it’s all just a trick on the brain,” Parnia said.
In a first-of-its-kind study, Parnia and colleagues examined consciousness and its underlying electrocortical biomarkers during CPR for in-hospital cardiac arrest (IHCA).
They incorporated independent audiovisual testing of awareness with continuous real-time EEG and cerebral oxygenation (rSO2) monitoring into CPR.
Only 53 of the 567 IHCA patients survived (9.3%). Among the 28 (52.8%) IHCA survivors who completed interviews, 11 (39.3%) reported unique, lucid experiences during resuscitation.
These experiences included a perception of separation from one’s body, observing events without pain or distress, and an awareness and meaningful evaluation of life, including of their actions, intentions, and thoughts toward others.
“These lucid experiences of death are not hallucinations or delusions. They cannot be considered a trick of a disordered or dying brain, but rather a unique human experience that emerges on the brink of death,” Parnia told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.
And what’s “fascinating,” said Parnia, is that despite marked cerebral ischemia (mean regional oxygen saturation). [rSO2] 43%), near-normal/physiologic EEG activity (gamma, delta, theta, alpha, and beta rhythms) consistent with consciousness and a possible resumption of a network-level of cognitive and neuronal activity emerging for as long as 35-60 minutes into CPR.
Some of these brain waves normally occur when people are conscious and performing higher mental functions, including thinking, memory retrieval, and conscious perception, he said.
“Seismic Shift” in Understanding of Death
This is the first time such biomarkers of consciousness have been identified during cardiac arrest and CPR, Parnia said.
He said further study is needed to more precisely define biomarkers of what is considered to be clinical consciousness, the recalled experience of death, and to monitor the long-term psychological effects of resuscitation after cardiac arrest.
“Our understanding of death has gone through a seismic shift in the last few years,” Parnia told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.
“The biological discoveries around death and the postmortem period are completely different to the social conventions that we have about death. That is, we perceive of death as being the end, but actually what we’re finding is that brain cells don’t die.” immediately. They die very slowly over many hours of time,” Parnia noted.
Reached for comment, Ajmal Zemmar, MD, PhD, with University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, noted that several studies, including this one, “challenge the traditional way that we think of death — that when the heart stops beating that’s when we die .”
The observation that during cardiac arrest and CPR, the brain waves are still normal for up to an hour is “fairly remarkable,” Zemmar told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.
“However, whether there is conscious perception or not is very hard to answer,” Zemmar cautioned.
“This type of research attempts to bridge the objective EEG recordings with the subjective description you get from the patient, but it’s hard to know when conscious perception stops,” he said.
Funding and support for the study was provided by NYU Langone Health, The John Templeton Foundation, and the UK Resuscitation Council and National Institutes for Health Research. Parnia and Zemmar report no relevant financial relationships.
American Heart Association (AHA) 2022 Scientific Sessions: Resuscitation Science Symposium 2022. Abstract 20. Presented November 6, 2022.
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