Little more than 40 years ago, a partially functioning brain would not have gotten in the way of organ donation; irreversible cardiopulmonary failure was still the only standard for determining death. But during the 1970s, that began to change, and by the early 1980s, the cessation of all brain activity — brain death — had become a widely accepted standard. In the transplant community, brain death was attractive for one particular reason: The bodies of such donors could remain on respirators to keep their organs healthy, even during much of the organ-removal surgery. Today, the medical establishment, facing a huge shortage of organs, needs new sources for transplantation. One solution has been a return to procuring organs from patients who die of heart failure. Before dying, these patients are likely to have been in a coma, sustained by a ventilator, with very minimal brain function — a hopeless distance from what we mean by consciousness. Still, many people, including some physicians, consider this type of organ donation, known as “donation after cardiac death” or DCD, as akin to murder.
This becomes especially interesting when neurological tests have identified very specific brain activity in comatose patients when asking questions that shows they can hear and respond by using their thoughts.
….they tested a young woman diagnosed as being in a vegetative state following a car accident. Although she was unresponsive and apparently unaware of her surroundings, she exhibited distinct patterns of brain activity when asked to imagine herself playing tennis or walking through the rooms of her house. As in healthy volunteers, imagining tennis activated motor planning regions in the woman’s brain, whereas picturing her house activated a brain region involved in recognizing familiar scenes. VIA
So, she is picturing going through the rooms of her house when you ask her to, and thinking about playing tennis just the same. And she wasn’t the only one. More patients were found to be able to communicate via yes or no with activating the motor or mapping/memory parts of their brains which are in two different locations.
These results show that a small proportion of patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state have brain activation reflecting some awareness and cognition. Via
We still pull plugs on coma patients and can’t even decide when a fetus is a human. What is brain dead, and if we ever pull the plug, is that murder?
Martin M. Monti, Ph.D., Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, M.Sc., Martin R. Coleman, Ph.D., Melanie Boly, M.D., John D. Pickard, F.R.C.S., F.Med.Sci., Luaba Tshibanda, M.D., Adrian M. Owen, Ph.D., and Steven Laureys, M.D., Ph.D. (2010). Willful Modulation of Brain Activity in Disorders of Consciousness N Engl J Med