Many science fiction stories are full of predictions of the future and with its handheld personal communicators and powerful computers, Star Trek has always been ahead of the curve. However, a new piece of research has shown that one particular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation actually made an extremely accurate prediction about one of the most important parts of human existence.
But what was the study? Well, it was conducted by scientists from the University of Cincinnati in Canada and the Berlin University of Medicine. They were given access to men and women who had suffered brain injuries. The patients in question had ended up having the medical equipment that had been keeping them alive turned off.
It was the moment the equipment was turned off that the researchers were most interested in. While studies into what happens when the brain stops receiving oxygen had been conducted with animals throughout the past century. This was to be the first time that the investigation had been conducted on humans though.
In the animal kingdom, when the oxygen supply to the brain stops, several things begin to happen. Once the heart has stopped pumping oxygenated blood into the brain, the vital chemicals needed to keep the brain working also run out. This in turn leads to something known as cerebral ischemia.
What this essentially means is that the neurons that make up the brain are trying to hold on to what little energy they have left. Electrical signals in the brain come to a stop, shutting down the inner workings of the sensory organ in a last-ditch attempt by the neurons to stay alive for as long as they possibly can.
The scientists involved in the study were given consent by the families of the injured patients to monitor their brains and see whether the same changes occurred in humans as they approached death. What the researchers discovered gives us a much better understanding of how the body breaks down at the point of dying.
Electrodes were placed on the patient’s heads to allow researchers to watch what was happening inside their brains. And the researchers found that much of the same reactions occur in the human brain as occur in animals brains. Almost all of the patients involved in the study developed cerebral ischemia as their oxygen ran out.
Brain death happens in two stages. First, according to IFLScience there’s what the research calls a “nonspreading depression,” which happened in the patient’s brain simultaneously. That’s followed by a “spreading depolarization,” or SD, where an enormous amount of energy runs throughout the brain as the chemicals within it start to break down.
And it’s this depolarization, which scientists also refer to as a “brain tsunami,” that is the eventual cause of brain death. Interestingly though, this phenomena may not always be irreversible. While the “nonspreading depression” happens in all parts of the brain at the same time, the SD is a gradual process that affects different parts of the brain at different times.
The main writer of the study, Professor Jens Dreier from Charité’s Center for Stroke Research, explained to IFLScience what this might mean. “Spreading depolarization marks the onset of the toxic cellular changes that eventually lead to death, but is not a marker of death per se, since depolarization is reversible – up to a point – with restoration of energy supply.”
At this point you’re probably wondering where Star Trek fits into the picture. Well to answer that question we have to head back in time three decades, to the 23rd episode of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episode is called “Skin of Evil,” and it contains one of the most tragic events that the series has ever broadcast. It also contains something far more intriguing.
The episode sees Councillor Deanna Troi being held hostage by what is, to all intents and purposes, a malevolent pile of gunk. Said gunk, which is known as Armus, attacks one of the other characters in the show, Tasha Yar, who ends up very badly hurt. Yar is taken to the sickbay on the Enterprise. And it’s there that things start to get a bit weird.
The rest of the crew stand vigil over Yar’s sickbed, watching as she slowly succumbs to her wounds. The doctor on the advanced spaceship explains to them that although Yar isn’t displaying any signs of neural activity, there’s still a chance that medical science can save her. Then another member of the crew says something strangely resonant.
As Yar edges closer to death, one of the medical staff says, “Neurons are beginning to depolarize.” It’s a line that could easily have been pulled from the study that came out 30 years later. Which poses a pretty interesting question. How did Star Trek manage to predict something so far ahead of its time?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation were somehow able to travel through time. In fact, the answer has already been mentioned in this article. And it’s far more mundane than any sort of temporal distortion that gave the script writers a glimpse into the future.
You see, the theory that the researchers have now shown in practice in humans has been seen in animals for several decades. Speaking to Vice, Dreier explained that a colleague who had worked with him on the report watched the Star Trek episode and brought it to his attention.
Dreier told Vice, “My best guess is that the creators of Star Trek must have found research at the time that detailed a similar process in animals. The first person to research these sort of brain waves was a Brazilian neurophysiologist who conducted studies on rabbits in the 1940s.” In other words, the writers were using theories that already existed but had yet to be proven in humans.
But Dreier didn’t take it too badly that Star Trek apparently got to the findings first, mainly because of the implications their research offers. He explained, “The process in Star Trek doesn’t go into much detail, but does lay out the general principle really well. Our research is important because we’re not only showing that the process happens, but also how we might be able to stop it.”
That’s because the researchers have shown in the study the point where, hypothetically, a brain could be brought back to life. The depolarization mentioned in the paper is reversible, if the brain’s power is somehow turned back on. Although we’ve got a long way to go before we get there.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is set in the 24th century, roughly 300 years from now. Things didn’t end well for Tasha Yar, as fans of the series will know all too well. But with the study now showing what happens when our brain starts to die, there’s a good chance that anyone coming across terrifying blobs of gloop that far in the future might fare a little better.