An elderly woman never speaks, no longer recognizes her loved ones when they come to visit, and shows no expression. By the looks of her, she is a human vegetable. And she’s been this way for over a year. Her brain’s cerebral cortex and hippocampus — necessary for memory, thought, language, and normal consciousness — are severely shrunk. Her brain bears little resemblance to a healthy one. Yet something utterly astonishing is about to happen. As reported by both the nursing staff of her care unit and her family members: “Unexpectedly, she calls her daughter and thanks her for everything. She has a phone conversation with her grandchildren, exchanges kindness and warmth. She says farewell and shortly thereafter dies.”

Similar cases have been scattered side notes in the medical literature, but recently a small body of researchers, such as Bruce Greyson, professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, and Michael Nahm in Freiburg, Germany, have begun to take a careful look at the phenomenon and agreed to call it terminal lucidity (TL).

Professor Alexander Batthyany, who teaches cognitive science at the University of Vienna, is currently running a large-scale study on the phenomenon, the first of its kind. He is sending out detailed questionnaires to caregivers of Alzheimer’s victims, mostly nurses and medical doctors, and as the questionnaires trickle in, new mysteries arise as fast as older ones are clarified. The case cited above comes from Batthyany’s database. Almost all brain scientists have assumed up until now that a severely-damaged brain makes normal cognition impossible. But Batthyany’s preliminary results, presented at the annual IANDS Congress in Newport, Calif., suggests that normal cognition, or lucidity, does occur in spite of a severely-damaged brain. Not often, but in about 5-10 percent of Alzheimer’s cases and only when death is very near.

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