Doctors who found the first scientific evidence supporting the possible existence of an afterlife have launched a charitable foundation to further the study of the human mind at the end of life.
University of Southampton researchers have just published a paper detailing their pioneering study into near death experiences (or near-death experiences) that suggests consciousness and the mind may continue to exist after the brain has ceased to function and the body is clinically dead.
The team spent a year studying people resuscitated in the city's General Hospital after suffering a heart attack. The patients brought back to life were all, for varying lengths of time, clinically dead with no pulse, no respiration and fixed dilated pupils.
Independent EEG studies have confirmed that the brain's electrical activity, and hence brain function, ceases at that time. But seven out of 63 (11 per cent) of the Southampton patients who survived their cardiac arrest recalled emotions and visions during unconsciousness.
Dr Sam Parnia, a co-author of the study, is one of four trustees of the Horizon Research Foundation. He said: "The aims of the charity are twofold. Firstly we want to be an educational resource both for professionals and for people who have had or who want to find out more about end of life experiences and issues.
"We will be sending out an information pack and for a £10 annual fee members will be kept up to date with the latest developments in the field through regular newsletters and our website.
"We will also be organizing seminars and conferences to educate those interested. Any money raised will be used for more scientific research into the study of the human mind at the end of life."
In the Southampton study 63 heart attack survivors were interviewed within a week of their cardiac arrest and asked if they remembered anything during their period of unconsciousness.
Seven of the survivors reported some near-death experiences features and four patients (six per cent) reached the strict Greyson criteria used to diagnose near-death experiences.
They recalled feelings of peace and joy, time speeded up, heightened senses, lost awareness of body, seeing a bright light, entering another world, encountering a mystical being or deceased relative and coming to a point of no return.
This raises the question of how such lucid thought processes can occur when the brain is dead. Dr Parnia, a University clinical research fellow and registrar, said: "The main significance of the near-death experience lies in the understanding of the relationship between mind and brain which has remained a topic of debate in contemporary philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.
"Very little is known scientifically about the subjective experience of dying, the nature of the human mind and its outcome during 'clinical death'. This is becoming a very important issue in medicine.
"Our findings need to be investigated with a much larger study. But if the results are replicated it would imply that the mind may continue to exist after the death of the body, or an afterlife."
Accounts of near-death experiences have been found in many different cultures and throughout history and it is estimated that six per cent of people suffering a cardiac arrest will have such an experience.
There are currently three explanations for these accounts. The first is physiological; that the hallucinations patients experience is due to disturbed brain chemistry caused by drug treatment, a lack of oxygen or changes in carbon dioxide levels.
In the Southampton study none of the four patients who had near-death experiences had low levels of oxygen or received any unusual combination of drugs during their resuscitation.
A second explanation is that out of body experiences and vivid encounters with tunnels, lights or deceased relatives are constructed by the mind to ease the process of death.
Dr Parnia added: "The features of the near-death experiences in this study were dissimilar to those of confusional hallucinations as they were highly structured, narrative, easily recalled and clear."
The third possible explanation is transcendental, an event indicating the continuation of life after death. All four Southampton study patients who reported a near-death experience were Christians but none described themselves as practicing - one said he was a Pagan - and nor did they see religious-type figures during their experience.
Dr Parnia added: "During cardiac arrest brainstem activity is rapidly lost. It should not be able to sustain such lucid processes or allow the formation of lasting memories.
"We need a large, definitive study to tell us whether the mind is produced by the brain or whether it is a separate entity. If it is the latter this will have almost unimaginable implications."
Note for editors:
· The Horizon Research Foundation can be contacted by phone on 0870 3333722 or by writing to Mailpoint 888, Southampton General Hospital, Tremona Road, Southampton SO16 6YD.
· The Foundation website address is www.horizon-research.co.uk.
· The Southampton study is published in this month's issue of the medical journal Resuscitation.
For further information:
Dr Sam Parnia, Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton (tel: 023 8079 5026 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
Kim d'Arcy, External Relations, University of Southampton (tel: 023 8059 4993 e-mail email@example.com).