Some people may still be able to hear despite unresponsiveness at the end of life, according to a small study in hospice patients.

Professor Lawrence Ward

Study participants gave their consent in advance, and investigators measured electrical activity in the brain in response to sound patterns. They compared data from healthy control participants, alert hospice patients, and the same hospice patients when unresponsive near the end of life. They found that some patients’ brains reacted similarly to the healthy controls’ brains — even as death was imminent.

The evidence shows that the patients’ brains were responding to sound, and that they might have been hearing, explained Professor Lawrence Ward, of the University of British Columbia.

However, it’s uncertain whether unconscious patients understand what they hear, Ward added. But a retired palliative care physician who inspired the research said the results confirm what she and her colleagues often notice — a reaction to the voices of family members, friends and staff in dying patients.

“To me, [speaking to these patients] adds significant meaning to the last days and hours of life, and shows that being present, in person or by phone, is meaningful. It is a comfort to be able to say goodbye and express love,” said Romayne Gallagher, M.D., from St. John Hospice, Vancouver, Canada.

“This first glimpse supports the idea that we have to keep talking to people when they are dying because something is happening in their brain,” concluded lead author Elizabeth Blundon.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.