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Is a brain-dead person actually dead?

The criteria for death weren’t clearly established until 1981

Muerte cerebral
MRI image of a human brain.Solskin (Getty Images)

Brain death occurs when the brain is completely destroyed, resulting in the cessation of all brain activity. Body functions like breathing, blood circulation and heartbeat all cease. Artificial respirators can sustain organ functions, but the person cannot breathe unassisted. The patient does not respond to external stimuli (light, pain, etc.) and there is no blood flow to the brain, making recovery impossible. In short, the patient is considered dead even though respirator-assisted breathing and blood circulation continues.

The concept of brain death emerged when advancements in intensive care medicine and organ transplant surgery required a clear definition of death. Prior to 1981, there were no specific criteria for defining brain death. In 1968, a Harvard University ad hoc committee examined the definition of death, and coined the term brain death that replaced the concept of irreversible coma and established definitive criteria for organ transplantation. Traditionally, death was determined by the absence of a heartbeat (asystole), cessation of breathing (apnea), and the subsequent interruption of blood circulation and oxygenation of all bodily tissues. In 1981, a consensus emerged that the end of life is indicated by the cessation of brain function, rather than heart function.

Is a brain-dead person actually dead? Yes — even though a brain-dead person may continue to breathe and have blood circulation for a brief period, this can only happen when connected to a respirator. Once the respirator is disconnected, oxygen no longer reaches the organs and the body completely shuts down. In 1993, the Spanish Society of Neurology formally recognized brain death as the death of an individual.

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