FAER-Helrich Lecture: Learning from consciousness at near-death

  • FAER-Helrich Lecture: Consciousness and the Dying Brain (SPE19)
  • 1:10-2:10 p.m. Monday
  • BCEC Room 210C

What happens to humans in the moments surrounding death might be one of the most intriguing mysteries of life. Monday’s FAER-Helrich Research Lecture will explore that mystery as well as the role anesthesiologists could play in solving it.

George Mashour, M.D., Ph.D., worked with neuroscientist Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., as the two led a research team at the University of Michigan in a study of the brain and consciousness after cardiac arrest. In his lecture, Dr. Mashour will explain that experiment, his interest in understanding consciousness and its potential impact on the world outside the O.R.

George Mashour, M.D., Ph.D., and Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D.

“One of the reasons this project is interesting and why the near-death experience is interesting is that it taps into bigger questions such as what happens to us after we die?” Dr. Mashour said. “Is there an afterlife? The question is at the border of science and religion, the known and unknown, of life and death.

“The data are interesting, but are certainly subject to interpretation. The bigger message is that anesthesiologists can approach some of these fundamental questions in science — or even in existence. We have unique expertise and tools, and I think we are able to generate some really important conversations in society.”

In the consciousness study, cardiac arrest or respiratory arrest were induced in rodents, and data from their EEGs were analyzed, said Dr. Mashour, Professor and Associate Dean at the University of Michigan Medical School and Director of its Center for Consciousness Science. The analysis used the same measures that are applied to humans undergoing anesthesia.

“What we found was that after the experimental cardiac or respiratory arrest, there was a surge in some neurophysiological markers,” he said. “We don’t know what is going on in the mind of a rat, but we do know some of these measures of connectivity in the brain seem to be higher when people are awake — they seem to go down under anesthesia and then they come back when they wake up and recover from anesthesia.”

The study created an international buzz in the media, including a front-page article in the Washington Post.

In his lecture, Dr. Masour will explain his work to better understand consciousness by looking at intraoperative awareness and other clinical studies that suggest the need for better measures of the level of consciousness.

“I am going to talk about the near-death experience itself and what is known about some interesting electrical surges that happen at the time of death,” he said. “I also will talk a little bit about what happened in the media afterward to paint a bigger societal context for the findings.

“The point is not so much the findings, it is the message. Anesthesiologists are doing remarkable research on the brain, and some of our approaches to scientific discussions can inform bigger discussions in science and in society.”

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