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When do we really die?

Now that we can restart hearts, and keep people alive who are “brain dead”, when do we really die?
Sara Helen Fletcher from London (age 15-24)

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One Response

  1. A good question and as in many of these problems it depends on how you want to define the terms – life and death.

    It has been decided within the medical world that a person is “dead” when the brain (or more specifically the brain stem) no longer functions. This makes sense if you consider that the essence of individual life is the ability to respond cognitively to their surroundings – i.e. there is consciousness. Without this ability the body is an inanimate shell and generally even with the best medical support it usually succumbs to overwhelming infection and multiple organ failure in a matter of months.

    An interesting parallel to this question is what is the essence that makes us, the individual we are? Patients with dementia gradually lose their memories and personalities and can end up mute and unresponsive. They are “electrically” conscious and evidently “alive” but the “person” is no longer in there. A devastating process for close family members to cope with. Personally, I think that it is our collective personal memories that make us unique. There are rare neurological disorders/injuries (particularly to the hippocampus) that prevent a person forming new memories. They are then “stuck” in time!

    Tim Dawson
    Consultant and Senior Lecturer in Neuropathology
    Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists

    The Royal College of Pathologists is holding an event entitled, Sex Drugs and Alcohol during National Science and Engineering Week. Our first National Pathology Week (3 – 9 November 2008) is taking place this year. See http://www.rcpath.org/index.asp?PageID=1526 for more details.

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