Literature Review

Consensus document reviews determination of brain death


A group of experts representing various international professional societies has drafted a consensus statement on the determination of brain death or death by neurologic criteria (BD/DNC). The document, a result of the World Brain Death Project, surveys the clinical aspects of this determination, such as clinical testing, apnea testing, and the number of examinations required, as well as its social and legal aspects, including documentation, qualifications for making the determination, and religious attitudes toward BD/DNC.

The recommendations are the minimum criteria for BD/DNC, and countries and professional societies may choose to adopt stricter criteria, the authors noted. Seventeen supplements to the consensus statement contain detailed reports on topics the statement examines, including focuses on both adults and children.

“Perhaps the most important points of this project are, first, to show the worldwide acceptance of the concept of BD/DNC and what the minimum requirements are for BD/DNC,” said corresponding author Gene Sung, MD, MPH, director of the neurocritical care and stroke division at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Second, “this standard is centered around a clinical determination without the need for other testing.”

The consensus document and supplements were published online Aug. 3 in JAMA.

Comprehensive review

A lack of rigor has led to many differences in the determination of BD/DNC, said Dr. Sung. “Some of the variance that is common are the numbers of exams and examiners that are required and whether ancillary tests are required for determination of BD/DNC. In addition, a lot of guidelines and protocols that are in use are not thorough in detailing how to do the examinations and what to do in different circumstances.”

Professional societies such as the World Federation of Intensive and Critical Care recruited experts in BD/DNC to develop recommendations, which were based on relevant articles that they identified during a literature search. “We wanted to develop a fairly comprehensive document that, along with the 17 supplements, builds a foundation to show how to determine BD/DNC – what the minimum clinical criteria needed are and what to do in special circumstances,” Dr. Sung said.

Major sections of the statement include recommendations for the minimum clinical standards for the determination of BD/DNC in adults and children.

Determination must begin by establishing that the patient has sustained an irreversible brain injury that resulted in the loss of all brain function, according to the authors. Confounders such as pharmacologic paralysis and the effect of CNS depressant medications should be ruled out.

In addition, clinical evaluation must include an assessment for coma and an evaluation for brain stem areflexia. Among other criteria, the pupils should be fixed and nonresponsive to light, the face should not move in response to noxious cranial stimulation, and the gag and cough reflexes should be absent. Apnea testing is recommended to evaluate the responsiveness of respiratory centers in the medulla.

Although the definition of BD/DNC is the same in children as in adults, less evidence is available for the determination of BD/DNC in the very young. The authors thus advised a cautious approach to the evaluation of infants and younger children.

Recommendations vary by age and often require serial examinations, including apnea testing, they noted.


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