Families are often told that their dying relatives can still hear them. Now, the first study to investigate hearing in terminally ill patients who are close to death confirms that.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia report that hearing can persist while patients are in an unresponsive state at the end of their lives.
Using a technique that measures the brain’s electrical activity, the researchers compared that activity in hospice patients who were conscious, those who were unresponsive and healthy control participants. The palliative care patients who were unconscious and typically in the last hours of their lives still showed brain responses to sound.
The researchers used patterns of common and rare sounds. The control patients and conscious hospice patients responded to the rare sounds by giving a pre-arranged signal. They monitored the participants’ brain activity during the rare tone pattern and then compared it with brain activity when the same tone was played to the dying, unresponsive patients. The brain activity was comparable in all three groups.
The findings expand on earlier research done in Europe that studied brain responses to sound among healthy, minimally conscious and unresponsive, brain-injured patients.
The findings give credence to frequent anecdotes from nurses and doctors that hearing comforting voices can ease a dying patient’s distress. Whether or not the patient is aware of what they are hearing remains undetermined.
For the families of dying patients, the researchers have this suggestion: Keep talking, because your loved one’s brain is still processing those soothing words.