Brain Activity At The Moment of Death

By Neuroskeptic | March 3, 2017 2:48 pm

What happens in the brain when we die?

Canadian researchers Loretta Norton and colleagues of the University of Western Ontario examine this grave question in a new paper: Electroencephalographic Recordings During Withdrawal of Life-Sustaining Therapy Until 30 Minutes After Declaration of Death

Norton et al. examined frontal EEG recordings from four critically ill patients at the point where their life support was withdrawn. Here are some details on the four:


Here’s the EEG recordings. None of the patients met criteria for brain death at baseline. Time 0 represents the moment of clinical death, namely when arterial blood pressure (ABP) became constant, indicating that the heart had stopped. This occured a few minutes after life support had been withdrawn.

nortonNorton et al. note that for three of the four patients, EEG activity ceased before the heart stopped beating – up to 10 minutes before, in the case of patient #2. However, patient #4 showed a slightly different pattern, with electrical activity (delta wave bursts) occuring up to 10 minutes after the final heartbeat.

The authors say that it’s hard to explain these apparently post-mortem delta waves:

It is difficult to posit a physiological basis for this EEG activity given that it occurs after a prolonged loss of circulation. These waveform bursts could, therefore, be artefactual in nature, although an artefactual source could not be identified.

Another interesting finding was that the actual moment at which the heart stopped was not associated with any abrupt change in the EEG. The authors found no evidence of the large “delta blip” (the so-called “death wave“), an electrical phenomena which has been observed in rats following decapitation.

Overall, this paper is an interesting contribution to the small field of necroneuroscience (see also), although the small sample size and the fact that all of these patients were severely ill, and on heavy sedative medications, makes it hard to know how far the findings will generalize.

h/t Bernard Carroll

ResearchBlogging.orgNorton L, Gibson RM, Gofton T, Benson C, Dhanani S, Shemie SD, Hornby L, Ward R, & Young GB (2017). Electroencephalographic Recordings During Withdrawal of Life-Sustaining Therapy Until 30 Minutes After Declaration of Death. The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, 44 (2), 139-145 PMID: 28231862

CATEGORIZED UNDER: EEG, papers, select, Top Posts
  • David Harvey

    my fathers watch stopped sometime during the major heart attack that killed him , he was pronounced dead at 507 the watch stopped at 505 . i still have it can’t get it to work though or change the time

    • Floridaliving

      Wow, the same thing happened with my father and his watch, which i still have and it has not worked since.

      • LincolnX

        Sorry for your loss. Can you confirm he wasn’t around an electrical source or that there wasn’t an attempt to defib him? The shock could have magnetized the watch.

        • Floridaliving

          It happened in his bedroom so the only electrical sources would have been the outlets. The medics tried to do manual compression on him in the bedroom. They cut his top off and also took his watch off and left it on the side. They then took him downstairs the ambulance and used the defib there. He was not wearing his watch when they did that. I have been looking at that watch for 13 years, it is the strangest thing. I am sure there is an explanation but I find it so coincidental.

    • LincolnX

      Sorry for your loss. Were people working on him and possibly a defibrillator was used? It could have fried or magnetized the watch.

  • John C

    One of the experiences commonly reported near death is seeing one’s life suddenly appear before one’s eyes in toto.

    I was hit by a car as a child, saw the car headed at me at high speed, go into a skid, and experienced nothing like that. I just calmly wondered what death would be like. And then crawled off to the side of the road afterwards to check if I still had all my parts.

    I ran out of air in a cave 105 ft. down in a scuba diving mishap. Again, no life re-cap. Just the thought that “so, this is how it’s going to end” – followed by emergency training automatically kicking in to let my partner know I was out of air so we could buddy breathe and get out of there.

    The anecdotal stories surrounding near death are very interesting though.

    • MissTyler Tyler

      I was hit by a car while on my motorcycle and indeed had the “life flash before my eyes” experience you didn’t have, but I wouldn’t explain it the way most of us have heard it explained.
      It’s always been hard to explain what I did experience and turns into a really lengthy description when I do which I don’t have the time for right now but I will say this about it — it was more of a life summation or instant “realization”, not “visualization”, of all the things I did that were of importance to me while at the exact same fraction of an instance realizing all the things I wanted to do which I had not done yet would now never happen.

      • xstratusx

        Interesting – did you feel at peace or sad?

        • MissTyler Tyler

          Wow, what a good question. I’ve never really thought about it but now that I am, I think with the shock of it all happening there wasn’t any room in my head for emotions. Well, actually, I can remember thinking a “What a shame.” type of thought, but not in those words (I realize this probably isn’t making any sense to anyone reading this and for that I apologize) but I don’t remember having any feeling with it like the normal sadness a person feels having said or thought that.

    • loopka

      Hi John, I had once car accident and had totally same thoughts as you did when I went into to skid on frozen roadway : “so, this is how it’s going to end”
      I did feel really calm and did let go of everything, but I did survived, obviously 😀 without any harm expect the car in total damage.

      • Neuro_Seance

        Me too, though I didn’t articulate anything, even mentally. I was just an observer as my FJ-40 slid to the right across four lanes of traffic toward a concrete wall at 60 miles per hour, flipped twice, and came to a stop upright in left shoulder, having slid upside down across all four lanes again to get there, and hit the center divider to get back onto its tires. Being a vintage FJ-40, it was not only drivable, the engine was still running. (And the damned thing only had a lap belt.) I wasn’t the least bit frightened until I realized I’d survived. The people who were behind me, also going 60 miles an hour, but with an electric blue upside-down Toyota skittering to and fro and bouncing off walls right in front of them, dine out on it to this day.

    • Jose Sauceda

      Maybe you weren’t gonna die

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  • peterjohn936

    What people need to understand is that the cells in the body do not die when the heart stops beating. If they did then organ transplantation would not work. The cells go into a type of suspended animation and can live for days if not weeks after as they are slowly destroyed by fungi and bacteria. If chilled and treated they could last for weeks. The big problem is that we just don’t know how to restart the body once it has stopped for a while. I don’t think it is impossible or even hard. It is that we don’t know how. And no one is even looking into it as if it is somehow forbidden.

    • Bernard Carroll

      Then there is the issue of cryopreservation. There has never been a Lazaroid demonstraion in humans outside the Bible.

      • peterjohn936

        No exactly true. Young people who have drown in ice cold water have be revived after extended period of time. Also we transplant organs that have been removed from their owners for a few days. All I am saying I don’t think it is impossible and if we figure out how to do it a lot of things get a lot easier.

        • kill3st

          But Lazarus was truly dead. The Bible says he stank because he had died more than 3 days ago.

          John 11:38-44
          Jesus Raises Lazarus
          [38] Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. [39] Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” [40] Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” [41] So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. [42] I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” [43] When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” [44] The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (ESV)

          Also see this article about 1st century Jewish burial customs:

          It says:
          “The dead, therefore, had a right to ceremonial care. As soon as a person was dead, his eyes were to be closed, he was to be kissed with love, and his body was to be washed (Genesis 50:1; Acts 9:37). In this washing, the body was anointed with perfumes. Nard was the most usual of these, but myrrh and aloes were also used.

          By the time of Christ, the custom was that the body was elaborately wrapped in a shroud and the face was covered with a special cloth called a sudarium. The hands and feet were tied with strips of cloth.

          Once this was done, relatives and friends could come to the home to say goodbye to the deceased for the last time. All of this happened in very short order; burial usually followed within eight hours of death. In such a hot climate, burial could not be delayed.”

    • Murphy

      Im saying i know all the answers or the what the actual moment of death is but when it happens i am informed that the cells instantly go into programmed death sequece. Like a self destruction clean up mode, apon losing their “figurative” WiFi connection with each other they go into a default mode, digesting themselves. And the only cells that can live are the white blood cells , only surviving about to a 5 day mark and even those cells significantly being parished by that point. I read in on a few decomposition writings.

      • peterjohn936

        Doesn’t happen like that. If it did then organ transplant wouldn’t work. The brain does seem to have a problem been revived. It does seem to go into a self destruct mode. But it is a chemical reaction that could be averted with the proper medicine.

      • John Dennis Roberts


        [Though I think the word strictly refers to processes that occur when one is still alive and as a natural part of a cell’s life cycle.]

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  • DooDooMcGhee

    I once read a random thought that has stuck with me for years.
    At the moment of death we know the brain is flooded with DMT. It’s a “reward” if you will for living? DMT causes extreme hallucinations for those who are unfamiliar. So this thought was that for the second or two that we “exist” after we are dead… The addition of DMT to the brain chemistry causes all sense of the passage of time to stop. Basically, a second could last an eternity. The other idea is that the DMT is actually preparing the “soul” for travel. This is based on the fact that multiple people taking DMT recreationally often report the similar if not the same hallucinatory experience. My question in all this is how would we evolve to have a “reward” at death? What possible natural process would cause the body to release DMT at the moment of death?

    • Sean Brown

      Interesting question, considering that what happens to us when we die isn’t exactly something we can either speak of or look for in a partner as a character trait, making it highly unlikely that it evolved as a survival method and made partners more attracted to one another for procreation. With that said, a scientific explanation would likely either be some weird mutation or it’s our own body’s way of making death less sucky after dreading the day it comes our entire lives, like a mind over matter type of thing.

      Personally, I happen to believe in a better life once I leave Earth, so I’m not too worried about it. However, someone who doesn’t share my beliefs would likely be excited to learn that their last hurrah, if you will, is an insane psychotic acid trip that sends them off to the next life.

      • TJ

        It evolved as a survival method, as, ironically, it makes the critter better able to survive severe injuries in the long run.

        IE: The people who tell the stories, survived…demonstrating the concept.

        The concept is also used medically, in the case of medically induced coma, etc.

        Its the same concept.


        • Alan D Emerick

          Was survival reliant on the attribute? Ipso facto is a tough sell in evolutionary biology

    • Jennifer Ann Smith

      Probably, the chemical processes involved are a “side effect” of the brain’s attempts to maintain normal function under extreme stress.

    • TJ

      Think of it as analogous to a shock reaction of a wounded animal.

      The body releases compounds that essentially anesthetize it during types of severe trauma. DMT falls into that broad category.

    • Rahul Kumble

      Release of DMT, I think, is a kind of defence mechanism of the body/brain preparing us to face the ultimate trauma i.e Death. Its similar to adrenaline pumping through one’s body in an injury which can numb pain for several minutes/hours

      • AnikaH

        but the thing is, you’re dead, or in the final stages of it, why is it necessary to feel anything at all, or have DMT release? we know why you have adrenaline while you’re still alive during injury or being attacked, it’s to help you stay alive. All chemical reactions can be explained, but the one that happens during death is quite pointless. except maybe the fact that it’s just a biproduct of the death process, without an actual purpose. the other thing I can think of is that your body including your brain loses all control of function. you might soil yourself, and just as such, your brain might lose control of chemical release and just have DMT leak. on the other hand I see someone wrote that DMT is released in case the person survives and it helps them handle the experience better. still, the need for hallucinations is strange.

    • Alan D Emerick

      Exactly. What is the evolutionary benefit? How is there any similarity in experience at all?

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  • Lauren M

    This topic is pretty interesting to me considering what happens to your brain when you are at a near death experience or right at death. I personally, have not had a experience like that but I do know some people that have. They described it as the “life flashing before their eyes.” Doing some reading on that, its actually hallucinogenic chemical, “DMT” that is released. This accounts for different sensations you may feel like meeting God, or seeing the bright light. To my knowledge, once the brain becomes unconscious, then tissue begins to die of oxygen starvation. Although their may be some brain activity going on in certain structures, shortly after the brain is dead.

  • Caiti

    I find all of this very interesting. My grandmother lost her leg. Although from the time her leg was amputated until she died she would have pain in the leg that was no long there. This must have something to do with the brain and how it does not recognize a part of the body as missing even when it is. In the same way as when a heart stops beating the brain is unaware the heart is not beating until oxygen deprivation causes the brain to begin to die. When the heart stops, the body has a reserve of oxygen in the lungs. When the oxygen is gone the person is dead.

  • Evan

    The brain is such a complex organ that governs everything that happens in our bodies. Further understanding the brain will unlock more information about how the human body works. Examining the brain at the moment of death produced some interesting results. Expectedly, brain activity greatly diminishes before clinical death in three of the four patients. This is expected since the brain provides signaling for the rest of the body. Therefore, when brain activity ceases, organ systems will no longer have the necessary signals needed to coordinate their functions. However, one of the patients exhibited a delta wave burst occurring up to ten minutes after the heart stopped beating. This is inconsistent from the norm, but the brain does regulate itself via electrical activity. This observation is definitely interesting and should be further investigated. A greater sample size would certainly provide more clarity to the findings. In addition, these patients were critically ill, so it is irresponsible to generalize the findings to the rest of the population. But, this paper starts an interesting dialogue that should be continued with more research.

  • Rachel

    This post is very interesting in that patient 4 had completely different results than the other three patients. The human brain is a multi-complex organ with many interwoven, working parts. I wonder if the way in which the patients passed as well as age has something to do with this anomaly. In addition, I wonder if any intervention during the dying process had something to do with brain function, such as defibrillation. The brain is a network of neurons that controls itself through electricity, so this could possibly have an effect on brain function. This would be an interesting experiment to follow through to a large population of patients to see if the results are consistent with what was found in this experiment.

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  • Mister Twister

    The article fails to say why this is relevant.

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  • AnikaH

    As I see it, hallucinations are a biproduct of the brain losing oxygen and synapses and chemical control tower, if you will, shutting down. I’ve taken Acid before and from personal experience it felt like my brain lost the ability to compartmentalize, merging time, surroundings, meanings, and hallucinations into one. it was if I lost boundaries within my mind. it’s possible at the time of death similar thing happens where your brain no longer has the energy needed to keep things orderly and tidy, making you feel one with the universe and making you feel like all your memories are flooding at once.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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