The recent media attention on the stories of Jahi McMath and Marlise Munoz have caused a lot of people to start talking about brain death, incapacitation, and medical choices. But what exactly is brain death? What are doctors talking about when they say someone is brain dead, is in a coma, or is in a persistent vegetative state? Knowing the answers to these questions is vital if you plan on creating advance medical directives, or even making knowledgeable medical decisions about the kind of treatment you might want to receive should you find yourself in a similar situation.
Part of the reason why understanding the concept of brain death and other brain related issues is often difficult for most people is because the brain is so complicated.
To begin with, it’s important to understand that our brains are responsible for allowing us to be the people we are. Nothing in our body happens without our brains. Whether we are making choices, experiencing an emotion, or regulating our body temperature or heartbeat, our brains are responsible for all of it.
It’s also important to realize that there are many parts of the human brain, each of which has different responsibilities. This is why, for example, someone who suffers one type of brain damage might not experience any significant side effects, but someone with relatively minor brain damage could come away with long-term, devastating medical complication.
When doctors talk about brain death, what they’re talking about is the cessation of brain activity. Put simply, the brain can be divided into two general areas: the lower brain and the upper brain. Brain death is when both areas of the brain no longer function. Though brain dead people can have their hearts, lungs, and other bodily systems kept functioning through the use of medical machines, their brains are no longer active.
Brain death, however, is different from a persistent vegetative state. In a persistent vegetative state, the person’s upper brain has stopped functioning, but the lower brain remains at least somewhat active. This means that the person no longer has cognitive abilities, but the still active lower brain is able to maintain the other physiological functions, such as breathing.
Finally, there is a coma. Comas are prolonged unconscious states from which most people recover. Both the upper and lower brains remain active in someone with a coma, though the person is not conscious or able to communicate.
If you’d like to know more about brain states, brain death, and related topics, schedule an appointment with us so we can talk about them and how they relate to your medical directives. You can also speak your physician for more information or medical advice.