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Views on Eben Alexander III, M.D. Near Death Experience

Dr. Alexander's Views on his NDE:

Dr. Alexander's Photo"My story offers compelling proof that the conscious awareness of our spirit thrives when freed from the limitations of the brain and body, joins with an unimaginably grander Being of infinite love, engendering our very existence with far more purpose -- that stories related to the afterlife told through millennia, including the relatively recent literature on near-death experiences, have a solid foundation in a realm far richer than our physical realm, one that is truly eternal. My conclusions are based on my rich experience during a severe and rare case of meningitis that should have totally extinguished any experience at all, should have been fatal, and certainly never should have allowed my full recovery to tell the tale. My realization took months to evolve, and is solidly based on the cutting edge of neuroscience, consciousness studies (specifically "The Hard Problem of Consciousness"), and quantum physics.

One can bicker about one's own version of "Heaven," all I can say with certainty is that that glorious realm truly exists. The variations in its description are related to the filtering or veiling function of the brain, which taint recollections with a cultural/personal flavor. The underlying reality is undeniable, fully supported by the wealth of material on all manner of spiritually transformative experiences, and on phenomena of extended consciousness (as shown in Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, by Edward Kelly et al)."

The followThe following is excerpted from the appendicies of Dr. Alexanders best selling book "Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Near Death Experience and Journey into the Afterlife"

Statement by Scott Wade, M.D.

As an Infectious infectious diseases specialist I was asked to see Dr. Eben Alexander when he presented to the hospital on November 10, 2008, and was found to have bacterial meningitis. Dr. Alexander had become ill quickly with flu-like symptoms, back pain, and a headache.  He was promptly transported to the Emergency Room, where he had a CT scan of his head and then a lumbar puncture with spinal fluid suggesting a gram-negative meningitis.  He was immediately begun on intravenous antibiotics targeting that and placed on a ventilator machine because of his critical condition and coma.  Within twenty-four hours the gram-negative bacteria in the spinal fluid was confirmed as E.coli.  An infection more common in infants, E. coli meningitis is very rare in adults (less than one in 10 million annual incidence in the United States), especially in the absence of any head trauma, neurosurgery, or other medical conditions such as diabetes.  Dr. Alexander was very healthy at the time of his diagnosis and no underlying cause for his meningitis could be identified. 

The mortality rate for gram-negative meningitis in children and adults ranges from 40 to 80 percent.  Dr. Alexander presented to the hospital with seizures and a markedly altered mental status, both of which are risk factors for neurological complications or death (mortality over 90 percent).  Despite prompt and aggressive antibiotic treatment for his E.coli meningitis as well as continued care in the medical intensive care unit, he remained in a coma six days and hope for a quick recovery faded (mortality over 97 percent).  Then, on the sixth day, the miraculous happened—he opened his eyes, became alert, and was quickly weaned from the ventilator.  The fact that he went on to have a full recovery from this illness after being in a coma for nearly a week is truly remarkable.

                                                            —Scott Wade, M.D.

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Neuroscientific Hypotheses I Considered to Explain My Experience
Dr. Eben Alexander III, MD

In reviewing my recollections with several other neurosurgeons and scientists, I entertained several hypotheses that might explain my memories. Cutting right to the chase, they all failed to explain the rich, robust, intricate interactivity of the Gateway and Core experiences (the “ultra-reality”). These included:

1.    A primitive brainstem program to ease terminal pain and suffering (“evolutionary argument”—possibly as a remnant of “feigned-death” strategies from lower mammals?). This did not explain the robust, richly interactive nature of the recollections

2.    The distorted recall of memories from deeper parts of the limbic system (for example, the lateral amygdala) that have enough overlying brain to be relatively protected from the meningitic inflammation, which occurs mainly at the brain’s surface. This did not explain the robust, richly interactive nature of the recollections.

3.    Endogenous glutamate blockade with excitotoxicity, mimicking the hallucinatory anesthetic, ketamine (occasionally used to explain NDEs in general).  I occasionally saw the effects of ketamine used as an anesthetic during the earlier part of my neurosurgical career at Harvard Medical School. The hallucinatory state it induced was most chaotic and unpleasant, and bore no resemblance whatsoever to my experience in coma.

4.    N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) “dump” (from the pineal, or elsewhere in the brain).  DMT, a naturally occurring serotonin agonist (specifically at the 5-HT1A, 5-HT2A and 5-HT2C receptors), causes vivid hallucinations and a dreamlike state. I am personally familiar with drug experiences related to serotonin agonist/antagonists (that is, LSD, mescaline) from my teen years in the early 1970s. I have had no personal experience with DMT but have seen patients under its influence. The rich ultra-reality would still require fairly intact auditory and visual neocortex as target regions in which to generate such a rich audiovisual experience as I had in coma. Prolonged coma due to bacterial meningitis had badly damaged my neocortex, which is where all of that serotonin from the raphe nuclei in the brainstem (or DMT, a serotonin agonist) would have had effects on visual/auditory experience. But my cortex was off, and the DMT would have had no place in the brain to act. The DMT hypothesis failed on the basis of the ultra-reality of the audiovisual experience, and lack of cortex on which to act.

5.    Isolated preservation of cortical regions might have explained some of my experience, but were most unlikely, given the severity of my meningitis and its refractoriness to therapy for a week: peripheral white blood cell [WBC] count over 27,000 per mm3, 31 percent bands with toxic granulations, CSF WBC count over 4,300 per mm3, CSF glucose down to 1.0 mg/dl, CSF protein 1,340 mg/dl, diffuse meningeal involvement with associated brain abnormalities revealed on my enhanced CT scan, and neurological exams showing severe alterations in cortical function and dysfunction of extraocular motility, indicative of brainstem damage.

6.    In an effort to explain the “ultra-reality” of the experience, I examined this hypothesis: Was it possible that networks of inhibitory neurons might have been predominantly affected, allowing for unusually high levels of activity among the excitatory neuronal networks to generate the apparent “ultra-reality” of my experience? One would expect meningitis to preferentially disturb the superficial cortex, possibly leaving deeper layers partially functional. The computing unit of the neocortex is the six-layered “functional column,” each with a lateral diameter of 0.2–0.3 mm. There is significant interwiring laterally to immediately adjacent columns in response to modulatory control signals that originate largely from subcortical regions (the thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem). Each functional column has a component at the surface (layers 1–3), so that meningitis effectively disrupts the function of each column just by damaging the surface layers of the cortex. The anatomical distribution of inhibitory and excitatory cells, which have a fairly balanced distribution within the six layers, does not support this hypothesis. Diffuse meningitis over the brain’s surface effectively disables the entire neocortex due to this columnar architecture. Full-thickness destruction is unnecessary for total functional disruption. Given the prolonged course of my poor neurological function (seven days) and the severity of my infection, it is unlikely that even deeper layers of the cortex were still functioning.

7.    The thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem are deeper brain structures (“subcortical regions”) that some colleagues postulated might have contributed to the processing of such hyperreal experiences. In fact, none of those structures could play any such role without having at least some regions of the neocortex still intact. All agreed in the end that such subcortical structures alone could not have handled the intense neural calculations required for such a richly interactive experiential tapestry.

8.    A “Reboot Phenomenon” – reboot phenomenon”—a random dump of bizarre disjointed memories due to old memories in the damaged neocortex, which might occur on restarting the cortex into consciousness after a prolonged system-wide failure, as in my diffuse meningitis. Especially given the intricacies of my elaborate recollections, this seems most unlikely.

9.    Unusual memory generation through an archaic visual pathway through the midbrain, prominently used in birds but only rarely identifiable in humans. It can be demonstrated in humans who are cortically blind, due to damaged occipital cortex. It provided no clue as to the ultra-reality I witnessed, and failed to explain the auditory-visual interleaving.