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Science is blurring the lines between life and death


SCIENCE HAS CONTRIBUTED greatly to our understanding of life and death, but the technologies it has enabled have also urged us to revise the boundaries we set between them. This has happened more than once, as Steven Kotler, journalist and director of the Flow Genome Project, points out when he writes that “Death has always been a sort of moving target”. This is all the more true given recent developments.

The definition of death offered in the first edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1768 was the following: ““the separation of soul and body; in which sense it stands opposed to life, which consists in the union thereof”. This very ethereal definition was as precise as the times allowed, but it proved to be quite vague. Medically, life was originally defined as the ceasing of the vital breath by which life itself was understood. But some key questions remained unanswered: When did the vital breath abandon the human body? How do we know for sure?

Anatomy and biology allowed us to understand the circulatory system. With William Harvey’s groundbreaking work regarding the functioning of the heart, life was then redefined as a lack of pulse. Still now, paramedics on the field take a person’s pulse to see if life is still present in, say, the victim of an accident or someone that has been injured.

But neuroscience caught up and proved that though a body may still be “operational”, there is a possibility for cerebral death to occur. This gained immense legal importance, as brain-damaged but otherwise healthy individuals were in a “sweet spot”, optimal for organ donation. This specific problem gathered a committee in Harvard University in 1968 that set to define “irreversible coma” – the main condition to establish the end of a person’s life. They chose the criterion of cessation of brain function, and this soon became the accepted standard to demarcate the end of a person’s life. Though this has still been defined unequally in different jurisdictions, it held for a few decades and only recently, did it begin to receive external pressure for revision.

In 2002, researchers in the hospital of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor announced that they had found a way to remove all of the blood of an animal – a pig – and replace it with a cold saline solution, effectively inducing hypothermia and slowing down brain activity. In other words, they effectively placed the pig in animated suspension. Most recently, a team of surgeons in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, used the same technique in patients which suffered a cardiac arrest after a traumatic episode, such as taking a bullet shot, and that we’re unresponsive to more traditional procedures. The researchers reduced the patients’ temperature to 10 Celsius, gaining a two-hour window to repair the trauma.

This is revolutionary. It’s the first human case where, even if for two hours, the dreams of legions of technologists and Sci-Fi writers alike become feasible.  Indeed, it is a feat that will push societies to redefine death – but by now we should have gotten used to it.

This article was originally published in Spanish, on culture and technology site Wondrus. 

Written and translated by Luis Eduardo Barrueto. Luis is a geek with a fascination for stories about art, science and the bridges between them. He founded Wondrus based on the quixotic belief that journalism can provide a space for those meaningful connections. 

Photo Credit: twm1340

 

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