Can brainwaves be detected in lime Jell-O – “Dear Cecil” – Jun 2010
The Jell-O brainwave researcher was neurologist Adrian Upton, who conducted pioneering work on the electroencephalography of gelatin desserts starting in the 1960s.
Upton wasn’t trying to be a wise guy — he wanted to make a serious point about brain death, which became a matter of critical importance once life-support equipment made it possible to keep a body functioning even though its owner had checked out.
This made me think that if a patient’s brainwaves are the same as lime Jell-O, they should probably be considered dead, but what about other flavors?
Normally brain death is signaled by the loss of certain brain-stem reflexes, such as pupil contraction in response to light, with flatline EEG readings as confirmation. Upton’s Jell-O stunt showed that obtaining a flat EEG in a hospital setting was tougher than you’d think.
Neurologists have long known the importance of identifying misleading EEG fluctuations called artifacts. Potentially confounding electrical signals from the beating heart and involuntary muscle twitches are commonly measured and subtracted from the EEG.
With a bowlful connected to the leads, a sensitive EEG machine’s circuits may pick up spurious signals from sources like respirators, IV drips, even ringing telephones.
The obvious implication: a brain seemingly generating such signals may in fact be deceased.
Distinguishing between faint but genuine signals and noise isn’t easy.
In a 1990 study neurologists were asked to analyze a set of human EEG readouts, then were shown the same readouts again a few weeks later;
13 percent of the time, the doctors disagreed with their own previous opinions.
A flatline EEG, also known as electrocortical silence, is usually defined as amplitude under two microvolts. Upton’s Jell-O displayed amplitudes several times higher.
That doesn’t mean EEGs are worthless as a brain-death indicator; it just means they have to be considered together with other signs.
Some types of overdose, coma, and paralysis can temporarily disrupt brain-stem reflexes and mimic brain death.
In some such cases EEGs can help demonstrate that the person is still alive. In one study of 89 patients who were judged brain-dead based on reflex loss, eight had nonflat EEGs, and five of these recovered.
Conversely, a flat EEG isn’t an absolutely sure sign of brain death. A temporarily flat reading can follow hypothermia or barbiturate overdose.
That’s scant hope, though. Two studies from around 1970 showed that over 99 percent of patients with flat readings were soon indisputably dead.
This is an area where you don’t want doctors making unwarranted assumptions.
This is equally true for those of us living with chronic pain when researchers start claiming that they can objectively detect our pain with brain scans.
If they can’t even detect for sure if someone is even alive, how can we trust them to detect our pain? I think we’re all so very different that only spurious correlations might be found, but I can picture such scans being marketed as “pain detectors” and used to further invalidate our pain.
Consider the one documented case of a person declared brain-dead who wasn’t. It happened in Birmingham, England, in 1974 to a man in his mid-60s named Michael McEldowney. The transplant team was just cutting him open when he started coughing. They sewed him back up and he died for real 15 hours later, at which point I presume the surgeons took up where they left off.
Author: Cecil Adams – Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.