VANCOUVER, British Columbia – In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at the University of British Columbia believe that people who are in an unresponsive state at the end of their life may still be able to hear. These findings provide insight into how friends, family, and hospital staff can bring comfort to people who are near death.
In the study, researchers recorded brain activity from healthy people and from hospice patients at St. John Hospice in Vancouver. Hospice patients’ brain activity was tracked both when they were conscious and when they became unresponsive near death. To do this, the researchers used a technique known as electroencephalography (EEG), which records electrical activity in the brain.
Researches recorded brain activity while they presented study participants with a variety of sounds that changed frequency. Participants were asked to give a pre-arranged signal when they heard a specific and rare tone pattern.
When brain activity in dying patients was compared to health controls, they found that activity was identical. That held true even when dying patients were unresponsive and close to death.
“In the last hours before an expected natural death, many people enter a period of unresponsiveness,” explains lead author Elizabeth Blundon in a release. “Our data shows that a dying brain can respond to sound, even in an unconscious state, up to the last hours of life.”
Hearing loved ones may bring comfort in death
The study was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Romayne Gallagher, a since-retired palliative care physician at St. John Hospice. Throughout her 30 years of treating patients, Gallagher witnessed positive effects when loved ones spoke to dying patients. She wondered if hearing was the last sense to go and contacted researchers at UBC to test her theory.
“This research gives credence to the fact that hospice nurses and physicians noticed that the sounds of loved ones helped comfort people when they were dying,” says Gallagher. “And to me, it adds significant meaning to the last days and hours of life and shows that being present, in person or by phone, is meaningful. It is a comfort to be able to say goodbye and express love.”
While these findings suggest that dying patients can still hear, it’s unclear whether people are aware of these sounds.
“Their brains responded to the auditory stimuli, but we can’t possibly know if they’re remembering, identifying voices, or understanding language,” explains Blundon. “There are all these other questions that have yet to be answered. This first glimpse supports the idea that we have to keep talking to people when they are dying because something is happening in their brain.”
The study is published in Scientific Reports.