Hearing likely still possible even in dying person's final moments, UBC research suggests
VANCOUVER -- New research out of a B.C. university suggests dying people might still be able to hear, even once they've become unresponsive in their final moments.
The research, which was conducted at the University of British Columbia and published in Scientific Reports, is the first time human hearing has been investigated close to death.
All the patients were in palliative care at St. John Hospice in Vancouver. A device was used to measure their brain's electrical activity both when they were conscious and later when they were unconscious. Young, healthy people were used as controls in the research.
"In the last hours before an expected natural death, many people enter a period of unresponsiveness," said study lead author Elizabeth Blundon, who was a PhD student in the psychology department at time of the study, in a news release.
"Our data shows that a dying brain can respond to sound, even in an unconscious state, up to the last hours of life."
The results of the research suggest hearing might be the last sense to go. However, researchers were unable to tell if the patients were able to identify voices or understand language.
Thirteen families participated in the study and brain recordings were collected from five patients once they were unresponsive. The research required patients to give consent ahead of time.
"We were able to identify specific cognitive processes from the neuro-typical participants as well as the hospice patients" said Lawrence Ward, a psychology professor at UBC, in the news release.
"We had to look very carefully at the individual control participants' data, to see if each one of them showed a particular type of brain response before we felt confident that the unresponsive patient's brain reacted similarly."
As a result, researchers say this new information can help friends and family comfort a loved one in their final moments.
Dr. Romayne Gallagher, who used to be a palliative care physician at St. John Hospice but has since retired, said she's noticed positive reactions in people who have been spoken to in their final moments.
"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," Gallagher said.
"To me, it adds significant meaning to the last days and hours of life and shows that being present, in person or by phone, is meaningful. It is a comfort to be able to say goodbye and express love."