Death has been everywhere in the news media since the announcement of Bin Laden’s demise on Sunday. How this historic event will affect global terrorism is unknown; perhaps the most important news of all was of the treasure trove of computers and files found in Bin Laden’s luxury “compound.”
With this event in mind, I came across today one of the strangest (some might say creepy) studies I have ever read – a biochemical study on death and dying. Researchers have found that death and dying can invoke euphoria and something like an “unbearable lightness.” Seriously.
In a study published in Neuroscience Letters, German scientists reported:
serotonin levels significantly increased during the process of dying, while the EEG went down to a zero-line, indicating no neuronal activity
The neurotransmitter serotonin is known to be associated with a feeling of “well being” and of happiness. How curious – a feeling of “well being” during the process of dying.
Here’s their data, using anesthetized rats:
How did they do the study?
six adult male Wistar rats were deeply anesthetized (chloral hydrate 400 mg/kg) and placed in a stereotaxic apparatus. A microdialysis probe (membrane 0.6 × 2 mm) was placed in the primary auditory cortex (AP-4,3; ML 7,0; DV 5,2). After insertion, the first dialysate was sampled after 2 h. Samples of extracellular dialysate were collected every 20 min for at least 2 h and analyzed using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) with an electrochemical detector. Quantification of serotonin concentrations was based on the chromatographic peak height using the external standard method. After cessation of breathing during this time, dialysate collection and EEG monitoring were continued. For EEG recordings, a tripolar stainless steel screw-electrode was used to record neuronal activity of the primary auditory cortex epidurally (AP-5.6, ML 7,0 related to bregma). Reference electrode was placed on the skull anterior to the frontal cortex. Electrical brain signals were transmitted to high-impedance preamplifiers. The EEG was filtered between 3 and 1000 Hz and sampled at 500 Hz. EEG was recorded and analyzed by commercial software (Brain Vision Recorder, Brain Vision Analyzer).
Similar to the endogenous opiods, which may prevent the organism from pain during dying, serotonin as a key neurotransmitter in mood modulation possibly induces a well-balanced and pleasant mood-state to make dying easier for the individual organism.
From a more psychological point of view, the increase of neurotransmitters such as endorphins or serotonin during dying might be the neurobiological correlate of so-called near death experiences with, for example, an extremely elevated mood during e.g. cardiac arrest.
I suppose that there’s good news in this study; that we have a “protection mechanism” that supports good feelings as we approach the end. I would rather wait for that final rush though.