Dr. Sam Parnia, a critical care doctor and the director of resuscitation research at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, has written a new book discussing ways in which people can be resuscitated after they previously would have been considered clinically dead.
Parnia's book, "Erasing Death: The Science That is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death," was recently featured on the Today show. "The advances in the last 10 years have shown us that it's only after a person dies that they turn into a corpse, that their brain cells start to die,'' Parnia told host Savannah Guthrie.
"Although most people think this takes place in only four or five minutes, we now know that actually brain cells are viable for up to eight hours ... We now understand that it's only after a person has turned into a corpse that their cells are undergoing death, and if we therefore manipulate those processes, we can restart the heart and bring a person back to life."
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Parnia's suggestion is not new; in fact, as researcher Jan Bondeson notes in his 2001 book "Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear," "In 1787 the French doctor Francois Thierry published a book in which he stated his conviction that most people did not die until some time after the onset of traditional signs of death."
To make sure that the "dead" had really irrevocably passed on, Thierry suggested that all major cities in France should have special "waiting mortuaries," in which the recently deceased would be laid out in rows on floors or tables and carefully watched by monitors who would wander among the corpses looking for signs of anyone coming back to life.
It was only at the point in which the bodies would begin bloating and putrefying (along with the appearance of maggots and flies) that the corpse would finally be considered dead enough and sent for burial. There is no record of the job turnover rate in the waiting mortuary attendant profession, but it was likely high.
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Throughout most of history, medical knowledge of anatomy has been poor and indirect, partly because of fear and taboos against cutting open corpses. Finding the boundary between life and death has concerned humans for millennia; fears of premature burial obsessed many in the Victorian era and in fact some caskets were equipped with tubes and equipment leading to the surface so that bells and flags could be raised to alert groundskeepers in case the "dead" awoke.
Public uncertainty about the line between life and death (and fear of premature burial) was widespread, as Bondeson notes: "By the early nineteenth century, the danger of premature burial had become one of the most-feared perils of everyday life, and a torrent of pamphlets and academic theses were dedicated to this subject by writers all over Europe.
In almost every country, literature on this gruesome topic was readily available, ranging from the solemn medical thesis and the philanthropic call for more waiting mortuaries to pamphlets written by fanatics who claimed that more than 1/10th of humanity was buried alive ..."
Compounding the problem, often even the truly dead would not stay buried: in the 1700s and 1800s theft from graveyards was common in London, and grave robbers were making a profit digging up bodies and selling them to anatomists.
Some have suggested that Dr. Parnia is talking about proof of life after death or near-death experiences, but in fact he is simply stating what many doctors have known for decades: Consciousness does not suddenly stop when the heart stops beating and the line between life and death remains murky, even today.
The question is not, as a poll linked to the Today story asked, "Whether people can be brought back from the brink" of death when their heart stops beating; clearly the answer is yes. The question - at least in near-death experience research - is instead whether people can be brought back (without catastrophic and irreparable brain damage) after clinical brain death, and the answer to that seems to be no.
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A 2011 article, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by neuroscientist Dean Mobbs of the University of Cambridge and Caroline Watt at the University of Edinburgh, found that "near-death experiences are the manifestation of normal brain function gone awry, during a traumatic, and sometimes harmless, event."
Their research also busts another myth: that people have "returned from the dead" - if by dead you mean clinical brain death. No one has survived true clinical death (which is why the experiences are called "near-death"). Many people have been revived after their heart stopped for short periods of time - around 20 minutes or more - but anyone revived from brain death would be permanently and irreparably brain damaged and certainly unable to report their experiences.
"The idea of surviving clinical brain death is mythical," Watt said.
In the plant world, the question of point of death is even more ambiguous: Does a flower die the moment it is cut from the plant, or does it die over the course of several days? A tree cut into pieces it will surely not survive, though a tree uprooted by a storm may live for weeks or months. Obviously at some point the plant becomes too dessicated to be viable, but identifying that exact moment of "death" is difficult or impossible.
Despite modern technology, the point of death in humans and other animals remains elusive.