Medical Discovery News

Death and the Brain

August 23, 2023 Medical Discovery News Season 18 Episode 875

875 Death and the Brain

Welcome to Medical Discovery News.  I’m Dr David Niesel. 

And I’m Dr. Norbert Herzog 

When do we die? Studies have shown our cells continue to live when the heart stops beating. And what about our brains? 

People who’ve been brought back to life after flatlining have described out of body experiences. And now new research suggests the brain is incredibly active as a person dies.  

Researchers have seen highly organized gamma waves in the brain in the last moments of life. These waves are linked to higher brain functions such as memory, cognition, and attention.  They help the various parts of the brain communicate and indicate consciousness. 

Just a couple of years ago, scientists were measuring electrical activity on the surface of an 87-year-old patient’s brain when he suddenly died. There was a surge of gamma waves for 30 seconds before and after his heart stopped. 

In the new study, scientists had permission to monitor comatose patients not expected to recover after their ventilators were removed. 

They also saw a surge in gamma waves for 30 seconds to 2 minutes after the ventilators were removed.  The waves were organized and provoked brain activity especially toward the back of the head and behind the ear. 

These areas are associated with dreams and out of body experiences.  This could be an indication that the person is conscious as they die. Since dying people can’t describe what happened, we don’t know for sure. 

Could we someday use AI to “read” the final thoughts of people?  It raises many ethical questions even if we could.    

We are Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog, at UTMB and Quinnipiac University, where biomedical discoveries shape the future of medicine.   For much more and our disclaimer go to or subscribe to our podcast. Sign up for expanded print episodes at