The brain and somatic integration: insights into the standard biological rationale for equating "brain death" with death

J Med Philos. 2001 Oct;26(5):457-78. doi: 10.1076/jmep.26.5.457.3000.


The mainstream rationale for equating "brain death" (BD) with death is that the brain confers integrative unity upon the body, transforming it from a mere collection of organs and tissues to an "organism as a whole." In support of this conclusion, the impressive list of the brain's myriad integrative functions is often cited. Upon closer examination, and after operational definition of terms, however, one discovers that most integrative functions of the brain are actually not somatically integrating, and, conversely, most integrative functions of the body are not brain-mediated. With respect to organism-level vitality, the brain's role is more modulatory than constitutive, enhancing the quality and survival potential of a presupposedly living organism. Integrative unity of a complex organism is an inherently nonlocalizable, holistic feature involving the mutual interaction among all the parts, not a top-down coordination imposed by one part upon a passive multiplicity of other parts. Loss of somatic integrative unity is not a physiologically tenable rationale for equating BD with death of the organism as a whole.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics
  • Body Constitution / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Death / physiopathology*
  • Death
  • Humans
  • Systems Theory*