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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

What 'Brain-Dead' Means

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By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Jan. 3, 2014 -- What does it mean when doctors say a person is brain-dead? WebMD asked critical care specialist Isaac Tawil, MD, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, and bioethicist Arthur Caplan, PhD, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Q. Is “brain-dead” the same as dead?

A. Yes. Many people think death happens when the heart stops beating and the lungs stop breathing, but machines can support those functions when the brain no longer can, Tawil says. 

Q. Do doctors use specific criteria to confirm death in every case?

A. “Most people die not on machines,” so it’s not necessary to evaluate them for brain death, Caplan says. 

“Typically, brain death starts with some sort of devastating neurologic injury,” Tawil says. “That can come in many different forms.” They include traumatic brain injury, a stroke caused by a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, or if the heart has stopped and the brain goes without oxygen and other nutrients it needs to survive for a long period of time.

Q. If a patient is on life support, doesn’t that mean he must be alive?

A. Loved ones might find it hard to comprehend that someone is dead when he still feels warm to the touch and his chest continues to rise and fall as a result of mechanical support, Tawil says. 

“What they hear is ‘kind of dead,’ ‘maybe dead,’ ‘sort of dead,’ but they don’t hear ‘dead,’” Caplan says. 

He and Tawil prefer not to use the term “life support” to describe the ventilator and other equipment that can maintain blood flow and breathing in a patient who’s been declared brain dead. “I use the term ‘organ support,’” Tawil says. “I think it’s somewhat deceiving to call it ‘life support.’”

Q. What makes doctors suspect that patients are brain-dead and not in a coma and alive?

A. Doctors and nurses test brain-injured patients for certain responses at least once an hour, Tawil says. Can they talk? Can they move their eyes? 

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