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J Relig Health. 2018 Jun 21. doi: 10.1007/s10943-018-0654-7. [Epub ahead of print]

Neuroscience and Brain Death Controversies: The Elephant in the Room.

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Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Mayo Clinic, 13400 E Shea Blvd, Scottsdale, AZ, 85259, USA.
Department of Critical Care Medicine, Mayo Clinic Hospital, 5777 E Mayo Blvd, Phoenix, AZ, 85054, USA.
Department of Philosophy and Religion, Methodist University, 5400 Ramsey Street, Fayetteville, NC, 28311-1498, USA.


The conception and the determination of brain death continue to raise scientific, legal, philosophical, and religious controversies. While both the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research in 1981 and the President's Council on Bioethics in 2008 committed to a biological definition of death as the basis for the whole-brain death criteria, contemporary neuroscientific findings augment the concerns about the validity of this biological definition. Neuroscientific evidentiary findings, however, have not yet permeated discussions about brain death. These findings have critical relevance (scientifically, medically, legally, morally, and religiously) because they indicate that some core assumptions about brain death are demonstrably incorrect, while others lack sufficient evidential support. If behavioral unresponsiveness does not equate to unconsciousness, then the philosophical underpinning of the definition based on loss of capacity for consciousness as well as the criteria, and tests in brain death determination are incongruent with empirical evidence. Thus, the primary claim that brain death equates to biological death has then been de facto falsified. This conclusion has profound philosophical, religious, and legal implications that should compel respective authorities to (1) reassess the philosophical rationale for the definition of death, (2) initiate a critical reappraisal of the presumed alignment of brain death with the theological definition of death in Abrahamic faith traditions, and (3) enact new legislation ratifying religious exemption to death determination by neurologic criteria.


Brain death; Ethics; Neuroscience; Organ donation; Religion

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