Studying death can improve life.
By Kevin Dickinson
Black cloak. Scythe. Skeletal grin. The Grim Reaper is the classic visage of death in Western society, but it’s far from the only one. Ancient societies personified death in a myriad of ways. Greek mythology has the winged nipper Thanatos. Norse mythology the gloomy and reclusive Hel, while Hindu traditions sport the wildly ornate King Yama.
Modern science has de-personified death, pulling back its cloak to discover a complex pattern of biological and physical processes that separate the living from the dead. But with the advent of these discoveries, in some ways, death has become more alien.
1. Our consciousness sticks around
Many of us imagine death will be like drifting to sleep. Your head gets heavy. Your eyes flutter and gently close. A final breath and then… lights out. It sounds perversely pleasant. Too bad it may not be that quick.
Dr. Sam Parnia, the director of critical care and resuscitation research at NYU Langone Medical Center, researches death and has proposed that our consciousness sticks around while we die. This is due to brainwaves firing in the cerebral cortex — the conscious, thinking part of the brain — for roughly 20 seconds after clinical death.
Studies on lab rats have shown their brains surge with activity in the moments after death, resulting in an aroused and hyper-alert state. If such states occur in humans, it may be evidence that the brain maintains a lucid consciousness during death’s early stages. It may also explain how patients brought back from the brink can remember events that took place while they were technically dead.
2. Revitalized brains
But why study the experience of death if there’s no coming back from it?
“In the same way that a group of researchers might be studying the qualitative nature of the human experience of ‘love,’ for instance, we’re trying to understand the exact features that people experience when they go through death, because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we’re all going to have when we die,” he told LiveScience.
Recently at the Yale School of Medicine, researchers received 32 dead pig brains from a nearby slaughterhouse. No, it wasn’t some Mafia-style intimidation tactic. They’d placed the order in the hopes of giving the brains a physiological resurrection.
The researchers connected the brains to an artificial perfusion system called BrainEx. It pumped a solution through them that mimicked blood flow, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the inert tissues.
This system revitalized the brains and kept some of their cells “alive” for as long as 36 hours postmortem. The cells consumed and metabolized sugars. The brains’ immune systems even kicked back in. And some samples were even able to carry electrical signals.
Because the researchers weren’t aiming for Animal Farm with Zombies, they included chemicals in the solution that prevented neural activity representative of consciousness from taking place.
Their actual goal was to design a technology that will help us study the brain and its cellular functions longer and more thoroughly. With it, we may be able to develop new treatments for brain injuries and neurodegenerative conditions.
3. (Gene) life after death
There is life after death. No, science hasn’t discovered proof of an afterlife or how much the soul weighs. But our genes keep going after our demise.
A study published in the Royal Society’s Open Biology looked at gene expression in dead mice and zebrafish. The researchers were unsure if gene expression diminished gradually or stopped altogether. What they found surprised them. Over a thousand genes became more active after death. In some cases, these spiked expressions lasted for up to four days.
“Can you imagine, 24 hours after [time of death] you take a sample and the transcripts of the genes are actually increasing in abundance? That was a surprise.”PETER NOBLE, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
“We didn’t anticipate that,” Peter Noble, study author and microbiology professor at the University of Washington, told Newsweek. “Can you imagine, 24 hours after [time of death] you take a sample and the transcripts of the genes are actually increasing in abundance? That was a surprise.”
Gene expression was shown for stress and immunity responses but also developmental genes. Noble and his co-authors suggest this shows that the body undergoes a “step-wise shutdown,” meaning vertebrates die gradually and not all at once.
4. Energizer bunny
Even our genes will eventually fade, and all that we are will become clay. Do you find such oblivion disheartening? You’re not alone, but you may take solace in the fact that part of you will continue on long after your death. Your energy…