UBC study suggests dying people can still hear in their final hours

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found evidence that dying people may still be able to hear in the final hours of their lives.

The research was published recently in the journal Scientific Reports, and is the first to probe whether humans can hear when close to death.

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“In the last hours before an expected natural death, many people enter a period of unresponsiveness,” lead author Elizabeth Blundon, a psychology PhD candidate at the time of the study, said in a media release.

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“Our data shows that a dying brain can respond to sound even in an unconscious state, up to the last hours of life.”

Researchers collected brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) in a control group of healthy participants.

They compared that data with EEG activity from patients at Vancouver’s St. John Hospice — both when they were conscious, and later when they become unresponsive.

The study found that some dying patients’ brains responded to sounds similarly to the healthy group of participants, even in the final hours before death.

Thirteen consenting families at St. John Hospice participated in the study. Researchers used recorded brain activity from five unresponsive patients.

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Study collaborator Dr. Romayne Gallagher, a palliative care doctor at the hospice who has since retired, said the data reflects the positive reactions she has observed when loved ones speak to dying patients in their last moments.

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“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,” she said.

“It adds significant meaning to the last days and hours of life, and shows that being present in person, or by phone, is meaningful.”

However, while the study does suggest an unresponsive person at end of life can hear, Blundon said it does not prove that people are aware of what they are hearing.

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