Brain death

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Brain death
Classification and external resources
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Brain death
Classification and external resources

Brain death is the irreversible end of brain activity (including involuntary activity necessary to sustain life) due to total necrosis of the cerebral neurons following loss of brain oxygenation. It should not be confused with a persistent vegetative state. Patients classified as brain dead can have their organs surgically removed for organ donation. Even after brain death, the working of the heart might continue at a slow pace, but there will be no respiratory effort.

Brain death is used as a legal indicator of death in many jurisdictions, but it is defined inconsistently. Various parts of the brain may keep living when others die, and the term "brain death" has been used to refer to various combinations. For example, although a major medical dictionary says that "brain death" is synonymous with "cerebral death" (death of the cerebrum), the US National Library of Medicine Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) system defines brain death as including the brainstem. The distinctions can be important because, for example, in someone with a dead cerebrum but a living brainstem, the heartbeat and ventilation can continue unaided, whereas in whole-brain death, only life support equipment would keep those functions going.

Legal history[edit]

Traditionally, both the legal and medical communities determined death through the end of certain bodily functions, especially respiration and heartbeat. With the increasing ability of the medical community to resuscitate people with no respiration, heartbeat, or other external signs of life, the need for a better definition of death became obvious. This need gained greater urgency with the widespread use of life support equipment, which can maintain body functions indefinitely, as well as rising capabilities and demand for organ transplantation.

Since the 1960s, laws on determining death have therefore been implemented in all countries with active organ transplantation programs. The first European country to adopt brain death as a legal definition (or indicator) of death was Finland in 1971. In the United States, Kansas had enacted a similar law earlier.[1]

An ad hoc committee at Harvard Medical School published a pivotal 1968 report to define irreversible coma.[2] The Harvard criteria gradually gained consensus towards what is now known as brain death. In the wake of the 1976 Karen Ann Quinlan controversy, state legislatures in the United States moved to accept brain death as an acceptable indication of death. Finally, a presidential commission issued a landmark 1981 report – Defining Death: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Issues in the Determination of Death – that rejected the "higher brain" approach[clarification needed] to death in favor of a "whole brain" definition. This report was the basis for the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which is now the law in almost all fifty states. Today, both the legal and medical communities in the US use "brain death" as a legal definition of death, allowing a person to be declared legally dead even if life support equipment keeps the body's metabolic processes working.

In the UK the Royal College of Physicians reported in 1976 and 1977, rejecting the whole brain death criterion as scientifically worthless, and adopting the notion of irreversible brain stem dysfunction as an indicator of death.[citation needed]

Religious views[edit]

There is a debate in certain religious groups on the validity of current brain death criteria.[3] Jewish religious law prohibits mutilation of a dead body, but there are those of Jewish faith who would allow the removal of an organ if it could save the life of another. Other religions are cautious about transplantation. Islamic beliefs say that a human body is a deposit from god that you should resign as you received, meaning that the body should be not manipulated by, but this issue is controversial between Islamic theologians in cases where donating organs can help other people to survive or have a better life. According to Buddhism, it is a great Merit to donate ones own flesh for the sake of another; according to this belief the Buddha, in a previous life as a rabbit, is said to have sacrificed himself by jumping into a fire in order to nourish a lost and starving villager in woods.[4] Islamic and Buddhist countries have allowed donating organs after death as long as the donor consents.[5] Accordingly, the more theologians are accepting of current brain death criteria, the more they are likely to support organ donation. It is not compatible with some Shinto beliefs due to handling corpses and bodily fluids being unacceptable.[3][6][7][8] Many Japanese have an aversion to tampering with the integrity of a corpse because they believe that the body and soul remain together and arise in the next life. This is a part of traditional Shinto teachings.[6][7][8] Therefore Japan has been a very late adopter of brain centric indicators of death as a result.[9]

Medical criteria[edit]

A brain-dead individual has no clinical evidence of brain function upon physical examination. This includes no response to pain and no cranial nerve reflexes. Reflexes include pupillary response (fixed pupils), oculocephalic reflex, corneal reflex, no response to the caloric reflex test and no spontaneous respirations.

It is important to distinguish between brain death and states that may mimic brain death (e.g., barbiturate overdose, alcohol intoxication, sedative overdose, hypothermia, hypoglycemia, coma or chronic vegetative states). Some comatose patients can recover, and some patients with severe irreversible neurological dysfunction will nonetheless retain some lower brain functions such as spontaneous respiration, despite the losses of both cortex and brain stem functionality, such is the case with anencephaly.

Note that brain electrical activity can stop completely, or drop to such a low level as to be undetectable with most equipment. An EEG will therefore be flat, though this is sometimes also observed during deep anesthesia or cardiac arrest. Although in the United States a flat EEG test is not required to certify death, it is considered to have confirmatory value. In the UK it is not considered to be of value.[citation needed]

The diagnosis of brain death needs to be rigorous, in order to be certain that the condition is irreversible. Legal criteria vary, but in general they require neurological examinations by two independent physicians. The exams must show complete and irreversible absence of brain function (brain stem function in UK),[10] and may include two isoelectric (flat-line) EEGs 24 hours apart (less in other countries where it is accepted that if the cause of the dysfunction is a clear physical trauma there is no need to wait that long to establish irreversibility). The widely-adopted[11] Uniform Determination of Death Act in the United States attempts to standardize criteria. The patient should have a normal temperature and be free of drugs that can suppress brain activity if the diagnosis is to be made on EEG criteria.

Alternatively, a radionuclide cerebral blood flow scan that shows complete absence of intracranial blood flow can be used to confirm the diagnosis without performing EEGs.

Organ donation[edit]

Brain death may result in legal death, but still with vasopressors helping the heart beat, and with mechanical ventilation all other vital organs may be kept completely functional,[12][unreliable medical source?] providing optimal opportunities for organ transplantation.

Most organ donation for organ transplantation is done in the setting of brain death. In some nations (for instance, Belgium, Poland, Portugal and France) everyone is automatically an organ donor, although some jurisdictions (such as Singapore, France and Portugal) allow opting out of the system. Elsewhere, consent from family members or next-of-kin may be required for organ donation. In New Zealand, Australia and many states in the United States, preference for organ donation is indicated at the time a driver's license is applied for. The non-living donor is kept on ventilator support until the organs have been surgically removed. If a brain-dead individual is not an organ donor or consent is not given by the legal next of kin, ventilator and drug support is discontinued, circulation stops and the organs cease to function.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ (Randell T. (2004). "Medical and legal considerations of brain death". Acta Anaesthesiologica Scandinavica 48 (2): 139–144. doi:10.1111/j.0001-5172.2004.00304.x. PMID 14995934. 
  2. ^ Life-sustaining Technologies and the Elderly
  3. ^ a b Bresnahan, Mary Jiang; Mahler, Kevin (February 2010). "Ethical Debate over Organ Donation in the Context of Brain Death". Bioethics 24 (2): 54–60. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2008.00690.x. PMID 19076119.  Closed access
  4. ^,
  5. ^ Veatch, R. M. (1989). Medical Ethics. Boston, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers
  6. ^ a b Marshall, Patricia A.; Daar, Abdallah S. (1998). "Cultural and psychological dimensions of human organ transplantation". Annals of Transplantation 3 (2): 7–11. PMID 9869883. 
  7. ^ a b Brannigan, Michael (February 1998). "On asking the right questions: personal death vs. brain death in Japan". Death Studies 22 (2): 157–169. doi:10.1080/074811898201650. PMID 10182424. 
  8. ^ a b Sato, O. (December 1997). "Human rights in organ transplantation". The Tokai Journal of Experimental and Clinical Medicine 22 (6): 297–299. PMID 9670432. 
  9. ^ Morioka M. Bioethics and Japanese culture: brain death, patients' rights, and cultural factors. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics. 1995;5:87-91. Available at:
  10. ^ Waters, C. E.; French, G.; Burt, M. "Difficulty in brainstem death testing in the presence of high spinal cord injury". British Journal of Anaesthesia 92 (5): 762. doi:10.1093/bja/aeh117. 
  11. ^ "Legislative Fact Sheet - Determination of Death Act". Uniform Law Commission. Retrieved 8 May 2012. 
  12. ^ What is Organ Donation After Brain Death (DBD) Organ Donation. By Jennifer Heisler, RN, Updated: January 03, 2009. Health's Disease and Condition content is reviewed by the Medical Review Board

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