September 22, 2008
Hospital Study Examines Near-Death Experiences
Doctors in the US and UK are expected to participate in a large study that will examine near-death experiences in cardiac arrest patients.
The study, due to take three years and coordinated by Southampton University, will look at 1,500 survivors to see if people with no heartbeat or brain activity can have "out of body" experiences.
Many people report seeing a tunnel or bright light, others recall looking down from the ceiling at medical staff.
The researchers have set up special shelving in resuscitation areas to test this. The shelves hold pictures - but they're visible only from the ceiling.
If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that the consciousness is a separate entity," said Dr. Sam Parnia, who is heading the study.
"It is unlikely that we will find many cases where this happens, but we have to be open-minded.
"And if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.
"This is a mystery that we can now subject to scientific study."
Parnia works as an intensive care doctor, and felt from his daily duties that science had not properly explored the issue of near-death experiences.
"Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment," he said.
"It is a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working and the brain ceases functioning - a medical condition termed cardiac arrest.
"During a cardiac arrest, all three criteria of death are present. There then follows a period of time, which may last from a few seconds to an hour or more, in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in restarting the heart and reversing the dying process.
"What people experience during this period of cardiac arrest provides a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during the dying process."
Parnia and medical colleagues will analyze the brain activity of 1,500 cardiac arrest survivors, and see whether they can recall the images in the pictures.
Addenbrookes in Cambridge, University Hospital in Birmingham and the Morriston in Swansea, as well as nine hospitals in the US are expected to participate in the study.
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