11 September 2008


11 September 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




Advances in science, particularly resuscitation medicine, had allowed a proportion of “dead” people to be brought back to life and facilitated a better understanding of what happened during clinical death, Sam Parnia of New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical Center said at Headquarters today.

He was speaking at a press conference held shortly before the opening of a one-day Symposium entitled “Beyond the Mind-Body Problem:  New Paradigms in the Science of Communications”.  The one-day event was organized jointly by the NGO [non-governmental organization] Section of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Dr. Parnia said that, contrary to popular perception, death was not a specific moment, but a well-defined process that began when someone stopped breathing, the heart stopped functioning and the brain shut down.  In the initial phase, which could vary from just seconds to as much as an hour, there was a window of opportunity where one could be brought back to life if one’s heart could be restored.

He said the results of a project to conduct the world's first large-scale study into the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death may not only revolutionize the medical care of critically ill patients and the scientific study of the mind and brain, but also bear profound universal implications for the understanding of death and what happened when one died.  Dubbed “The Human Consciousness Project”, the study is a multidisciplinary collaboration of international scientists and physicians researching the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the brain, as well as the neuronal processes that mediate and correspond to different facets of consciousness.

One of the most interesting questions for many researches, therefore, was what happened to the human mind and consciousness during death, he said.  While scientists agreed that death began when the heart stopped beating, one of the biggest unanswered questions related to the point at which the human mind and consciousness stopped functioning.  Was it immediate, as soon as the heart stopped working, a few seconds, a few minutes or an hour or so?  Research in the last few years had shown that 10 to 20 per cent of people who had undergone clinical death and been resuscitated, paradoxically, reported some activity of their mind and consciousness.  Thus, people would report often-lucid, well-structured thought processes, including reasoning and memory formations.  Although most of what they described was subjective and typical of the so-called “near-death experience”, there was a very objective particular component to what people described -- the ability to see and hear what was happening as they were revived or resuscitated.

One area that most people had thought about at some point in their lives was what happened when they died, he said.  Although that had traditionally been perceived as a subject for philosophy and theology, recent advances in science had allowed scientists the ability to conduct research in order to answer one of the biggest questions for all humankind through scientific and objective means.

Dr. Parnia, one of the world's leading experts on the scientific study of death, said the project would conduct multi-centred studies at major United States and European medical facilities, according to the state of the human mind-brain, and near-death experiences.  Dividing his time between hospitals in the United Kingdom and Weill Cornell Medical Center, where he is a Fellow in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Dr. Parnia is the Founder and Director of the Human Consciousness Project at the United Kingdom’s University of Southampton.

The big question was whether the human mind and consciousness could continue when someone had reached a point of death and when all studies showed the brain had stopped functioning, he said.  Studies carried out by independent researchers, both in humans and animals, had shown that brain function ceased and that it was no longer possible to measure any electrical activity within the brain.  “This has raised a huge paradox for us scientifically because we cannot explain why people can have consciousness and a thought process when there is a flat line in the brain during this time.”

Dr. Parnia noted that the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study was the world’s first and largest multi-centre study addressing the question of what happened when a person died.  It examined what happened to the brain, mind and consciousness during the early phase of death, which may take just a few seconds but may be up to over an hour.  Twenty-five centres in Europe, the majority of them in the United Kingdom, together with centres in the United States, which continued to expand, were involved in the study, and an 18-month pilot of the study had already been completed.

Also attending the press conference were Mario Beauregard, Associate Researcher at the University of Montreal’s Departments of Psychology and Radiology, and Neuroscience Research Center; and Bruce Greyson, Chester F. Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, and Director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia Medical School.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.