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The Cause of NDEs: Neuro Chemistry, Hypoxia in The Dying Brain

Captain KC Jones
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10/24/2022 10:09 PM
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The Cause of NDEs: Neuro Chemistry, Hypoxia in The Dying Brain
The “dissociative anesthetic ketamine can reproduce all aspects of the near-death experience,” Jansen wrote. That includes a sense of ineffability, timelessness, that what is experienced is “real,” that one is actually dead, a perception of separation from the body, vivid hallucination, rapid movement through a tunnel, and emerging “into the light.”

Although many psychedelic experiences bear some similarities to NDEs, recreational ketamine trips top the list. In a massive 2019 study comparing psychedelic experiences to NDEs, Laureys’ group used natural language processing tools to assess the semantic similarity between 15,000 accounts linked to the use of 165 different psychoactive substances and 625 NDE narratives. They found that accounts of ketamine trips12 most closely resembled those of NDEs.

Ketamine is also an N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist, and so could counter neurotoxic processes that are set into motion by NMDA receptors when blood flow and oxygen to the brain are cut off, “with a short lived, dissociative hallucinogenic state occurring as a side effect.” At least one naturally occurring substance that could play this role, called an endopsychosin, has been identified. In fact, critical conditions like hypoxia—oxygen deficiency—or temporal lobe epilepsy, have been shown to trigger NDEs or NDE-like experiences. And many studies and clinical trials have established that ketamine has neuroprotective and neuroregenerative effects in humans, even after stroke, brain injury, and epileptic seizures.13

There is likewise some experimental evidence that near-death experiences that occur at the time of a trauma might help to ward off post-traumatic stress disorder.14 Bruce Greyson, of the Greyson NDE Scale, led a study published in 2001 that showed that people who have NDEs report more intrusive memories of their close brushes with death but make fewer efforts to avoid reminders of the event, which is considered the more pathological dimension of PTSD.

“One feature that distinguishes NDEs from other forms of [traumatic] dissociation is the strong positive affect,” which might help defend against full-blown PTSD, Greyson wrote in the 2001 paper. “If so, we might speculate about the possible survival value of having NDEs when close to death.”15 (Of course, some NDEs have been documented to feature negative and even nightmarish features, though some question whether these are “true” NDEs.)

“Ketamine can reproduce all aspects of the near-death experience.”

Independently, serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood, cognition, reward, learning, and memory, might play a role in certain features of the NDE. In a small placebo-controlled experiment with 13 individuals, Laureys’ group assessed the experiences induced by injection with a drug called DMT that stimulates serotonin production, which triggered feelings such as entering an unearthly environment, heightened senses, feelings of peace and harmony or unity with the universe.

All participants scored above the cut-off score of seven on the most widely used reference scale for NDEs, the Greyson scale.16 Hypoxia itself has also been considered as a possible contributor. Hypoxia is sometimes experienced by fighter pilots during acceleration maneuvers, which have been documented to provoke tunnel visions, bright lights, OBEs, pleasant sensations, and visions of beloved ones.

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