Bioethics Blogs

Rethinking Irreversibility and Its Implications on Determining Death

By Alex Lin
Alex Lin is an undergraduate student at Rutgers University pursuing a dual degree in Biological Sciences and Philosophy. As an aspiring physician, he is interested in medical ethics and runs the Rutgers Bioethics Society alongside a diverse team of student thinkers. Alex is from Paramus, New Jersey, and volunteers as an emergency medical technician for his community.
Death, by definition, is irreversible. The notion of irreversibility is a central component of the current standards of death, cardiopulmonary and neurological alike. Given that the neurological criteria−the irreversible cessation of whole brain function−is the legally recognized criterion of death in many countries, including the United States [1], forthcoming advancements in neurotechnology under the BRAIN Initiative will be crucial to the accurate determination of death. With the development of technologies that allow scientists to study how individual neurons interact in significantly greater detail, questions emerge concerning the particular moment of truly irreversible total brain failure.
Consider the relatively new discovery of human adult neurogenesis. The established view was that the nervous system is fixed and neurons are unable to regenerate. However, this old dogma has been confounded by recent research in neuroscience. Studies have revealed that new neurons are continuously generated in the hippocampus and olfactory bulb, and adult hippocampal neurogenesis may even contribute to human brain function [2]. Modern technologies and research techniques enable scientists to study neurogenesis, which demonstrates the role that new scientific discoveries have in debunking long-standing views of neuroanatomy.
Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Also, recent advancements in neuroimaging have enabled physicians to detect signs of awareness in patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, whereas traditional clinical assessments that attempt to elicit predictable behavioral responses fail to do so.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.