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.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.