Brain stimulation sparks out-of-body experience

BOSTON (Reuters) - Electrodes implanted into the brain to treat a man with a stubborn case of ringing in the ear instead sparked an out-of-body sensation, doctors in Belgium reported on Wednesday.

Stimulating the electrodes made the 63-year-old patient feel like he was outside his body twice, for 15 and 21 seconds, and allowed the doctors to use a PET scanner to track which parts of the brain became active during the experience.

The out-of-body sensation of near-death experiences, sometimes reported by people whose hearts have stopped for a time, are regarded by some people as evidence of an afterlife.

Most scientists are doubtful, especially when epilepsy, migraine headaches, and brain stimulation can mimic the sensation.

A team led by Dirk De Ridder of the Antwerp University report in the New England Journal of Medicine that they were trying to cure the man of tinnitus in one ear when they stumbled onto the phenomenon.

The treatment did not work. Instead, the electrodes made the man feel like he was about 50 centimeters (20 inches) behind his body and off to the left.

Only a certain pattern of stimulation, involving a portion of the superior temporal gyrus, located on the right side of the brain, produced the sensation.

Positron emission tomography, or PET scans, showed that other parts of the brain became active as a result, including the supramarginal gyrus, which processes information from the inner ear designed to detect head movement and position.

“Whether these regions are activated in patients who report disembodiment as part of a near-death experience -- and if so, how -- is a provocative but unresolved issue,” they wrote.