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August 11, 2005

BehindTheMedspeak: Can you predict your death?

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Provocative new work by Dr. Jack Feldman and colleagues from the UCLA School of Medicine (Go Bruins! – hey, it's my alma mater, gimme a break), just published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, implies that such an ability is only a matter of when — not if.

Long story short: in an animal model they showed that there is a small region in the brain stem, consisting of perhaps 600 cells in rats and possibly a few thousand in humans, that directly controls breathing rhythm.

When they destroyed 80% of the region in rats, their breathing patterns became progressively more abnormal, first during sleep and later while awake.

The full complement of such control cells appears present at birth, gradually dying off and diminishing in number as we age.

The scientists speculate that humans can compensate for a loss of up to 60% of these key regulatory cells but beyond that breathing while asleep becomes more and more erratic, finally ending in respiratory arrest and being found dead in bed.

The researchers suggest that elderly people who die in their sleep, long thought to be most often the result of heart failure, may instead first simply stop breathing, leading to oxygen deprivation and, inevitably, cardiac arrest.

As noninvasive imaging of the central nervous system achieves ever finer resolution, look for scientists to find ways to "light up" these crucial cells such that they appear on radiographic images.

A quantitative assay of their number will be a predictor of imminent death.

Here is a link to a very good BBC News story on the study.

Here's another link with useful information.

August 11, 2005 at 05:01 PM | Permalink


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