Last year, there were widespread reports of a 53-year-old Frenchman who had suffered a cardiac arrest and "died," but was then resuscitated back to life 18 hours after his heart had stopped.
The once black-and-white line between life and death is now blurrier than ever.
This was thought to have been possible in part because his body had progressively cooled down naturally after his heart had stopped, through exposure to the outside cold. The medical team who revived him were reported as being "stupefied" that they had been able to bring him back to life, in particular since he had not even suffered brain damage.
Interestingly, this man represents one of a growing number of extraordinary cases in which people who would otherwise be declared dead have now been revived. It is a testament to the incredible impact of resuscitation science -- a science that is providing opportunities to literally reverse death, and in doing so, shedding light on the age-old question of what happens when we die.
Death: Past and Present
Throughout history, the boundary between life and death was marked by the moment a person's heart stopped, breathing ceased, and brain function shut down. A person became motionless, lifeless, and was deemed irreversibly dead. This is because once the heart stops beating, blood flow stops and oxygen is cut off from all the body's organs, including the brain. Consequently, within seconds, breathing stops and brain activity comes to a halt. Since the cessation of the heart literally occurs in a "moment," the philosophical notion of a specific point in time of "irreversible" death still pervades society today. The law, for example, relies on "time of death," which corresponds to when the heart stops beating.
The advent of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in the 1960s was revolutionary, demonstrating that the heart could potentially be restarted after it had stopped, and what had been a clear black-and-white line was shown to be potentially reversible in some people. What was once called death—the ultimate end point— was now widely called cardiac arrest, and became a starting point.
From then on, it was only if somebody had requested not to be resuscitated or when CPR was deemed to have failed that people would be declared dead by "cardiopulmonary criteria." Biologically, cardiac arrest and death by cardiopulmonary criteria are the same process, albeit marked at different points in time depending on when a declaration of death is made.
The apparent irreversibility of death as we know it may not necessarily reflect true irretrievable cellular damage inside the body.
Clearly, contrary to many people's perceptions, cardiac arrest is not a heart attack; it is the final step in death irrespective of cause, whether it be a stroke, a heart attack, a car accident, an overwhelming infection or cancer. This is how roughly 95 percent of the population are declared dead.
The only exception is the small proportion of people who may have suffered catastrophic brain injuries, but whose hearts can be artificially kept beating for a period of time on life-support machines. These people can be legally declared dead based on brain death criteria before their hearts have stopped. This is because the brain can die either from oxygen starvation after cardiac arrest or from massive trauma and internal bleeding. Either way, the brain dies hours or possibly longer after these injuries have taken place and not just minutes.
A Profound Realization
What has become increasingly clear is that the apparent irreversibility of death as we know it may not necessarily reflect true irretrievable cellular damage inside the body. This is consistent with a mounting understanding: it is only after a person actually dies that the cells in the body start to undergo their own process of death. Intriguingly, this process is something that can now be manipulated through medical intervention. Being cold is one of the factors that slows down the rate of cellular decay. The 53-year-old Frenchman's case and the other recent cases of resuscitation after prolonged periods of time illustrate this new understanding.
Last week's earth-shattering announcement by neuroscientist Dr. Nenad Sestan and his team out of Yale, published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, provides further evidence that a time gap exists between actual death and cellular death in cadavers. In this seminal study, these researchers were able to restore partial function in pig brains four hours after their heads were severed from their bodies. These results follow from the pioneering work in 2001 of geneticist Fred Gage and colleagues from the Salk Institute, also published in Nature, which demonstrated the possibility of growing human brain cells in the laboratory by taking brain biopsies from cadavers in the mortuary up to 21 hours post-mortem.
The once black-and-white line between life and death is now blurrier than ever. Some people may argue this means these humans and pigs weren't truly "dead." However, that is like saying the people who were guillotined during the French Revolution were also not dead. Clearly, that is not the case. They were all dead. The problem is not death; it's our reliance on an outdated philosophical, rather than biological, notion of death.
Death can no longer be considered an absolute moment but rather a process that can be reversed even many hours after it has taken place.
But the distinction between irreversibility from a medical perspective and biological irreversibility may not matter much from a pragmatic perspective today. If medical interventions do not exist at any given time or place, then of course death cannot be reversed.
However, it is crucial to distinguish between biologically and medically: When "irreversible" loss of function arises due to inadequate treatment, then a person could be potentially brought back in the future when an alternative therapy becomes available, or even today if he or she dies in a location where novel treatments can slow down the rate of cell death. However, when true irreversible loss of function arises from a biological perspective, then no treatment will ever be able to reverse the process, whether today, tomorrow, or in a hundred years.
Probing the "Grey Zone"
Today, thanks to modern resuscitation science, death can no longer be considered an absolute moment but rather a process that can be reversed even many hours after it has taken place. How many hours? We don't really know.
One of the wider implications of our medical advances is that we can now study what happens to the human mind and consciousness after people enter the "grey zone," which marks the time after the heart stops, but before irreversible and irretrievable cell damage occurs, and people are then brought back to life. Millions have been successfully revived and many have reported experiencing a unique, universal, and transformative mental state.
Were they "dead"? Yes, according to all the criteria we have ever used. But they were able to be brought back before their "dead" bodies had reached the point of permanent, irreversible cellular damage. This reflects the period of death for all of us. So rather than a "near-death experience," I prefer a new terminology to describe these cases -- "an actual-death experience." These survivors' unique experiences are providing eyewitness testimonies of what we will all be likely to experience when we die.
Such an experience reportedly includes seeing a warm light, the presence of a compassionate perfect individual, deceased relatives, a review of their lives, a judgment of their actions and intentions as they pertain to their humanity, and in some cases a sensation of seeing doctors and nurses working to resuscitate them.
Are these experiences compatible with hallucinations or illusions? No -- in part, because these people have described real, verifiable events, which, by definition are not hallucinations, and in part, because their experiences are not compatible with confused and delirious memories that characterize oxygen deprivation.
The challenge for us scientifically is understanding how this is possible at a time when all our science tells us the brain shuts down.
For instance, it is hard to classify a structured meaningful review of one's life and one's humanity as hallucinatory or illusory. Instead, these experiences represent a new understanding of the overall human experience of death. As an intensive care unit physician for more than 10 years, I have seen numerous cases where these reports have been corroborated by my colleagues. In short, these survivors have been known to come back with reports of full consciousness, with lucid, well-structured thought processes and memory formation.
The challenge for us scientifically is understanding how this is possible at a time when all our science tells us the brain shuts down. The fact that these experiences occur is a paradox and suggests the undiscovered entity we call the "self," "consciousness," or "psyche" – the thing that makes us who we are - may not become annihilated at the point of so-called death.
At New York University, the State University of New York, and across 20 hospitals in the U.S. and Europe, we have brought together a new multi-disciplinary team of experts across many specialties, including neurology, cardiology, and intensive care. Together, we hope to improve cardiac arrest prevention and treatment, as well as to address the impact of new scientific discoveries on our understanding of what happens at death.
One of our first studies, Awareness during Resuscitation (AWARE), published in the medical journal Resuscitation in 2014, confirmed that some cardiac arrest patients report a perception of awareness without recall; others report detailed memories and experiences; and a few report full auditory and visual awareness and consciousness of their experience, from a time when brain function would be expected to have ceased.
While you probably have some opinion or belief about this based upon your own philosophical, religious, or cultural background, you may not realize that exploring what happens when we die is now a subject that science is beginning to investigate.
There is no question more intriguing to humankind. And for the first time in our history, we may finally uncover some real answers.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby