A Biophilosophical Approach to the Determination of Brain Death

Chest. 2024 Apr;165(4):959-966. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2023.12.011.


Technical and clinical developments have raised challenging questions about the concept and practice of brain death, culminating in recent calls for revision of the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA), which established a whole brain standard for neurologic death. Proposed changes range from abandoning the concept of brain death altogether to suggesting that current clinical practice simply should be codified as the legal standard for determining death by neurologic criteria (even while acknowledging that significant functions of the whole brain might persist). We propose a middle ground, clarifying why whole brain death is a conceptually sound standard for declaring death, and offering procedural suggestions for increasing certainty that this standard has been met. Our approach recognizes that whole brain death is a functional, not merely anatomic, determination, and incorporates an understanding of the difficulties inherent in making empirical judgments in medicine. We conclude that whole brain death is the most defensible standard for determining neurologic death-philosophically, biologically, and socially-and ought to be maintained.

Keywords: bioethics; brain death; death determination; ethics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Death* / diagnosis
  • Brain*
  • Humans