Brain death can be caused by any injury that stops blood and oxygen from reaching the brain. Heart attacks can bring about brain death. So can strokes, which choke off the supply of blood to the brain. The brain can also die as a result of head injuries, blood clots and infections. And, as might be expected, a brain tumor, with its attendant abnormal cell growth, can cause brain death.
Traumatic injuries, such as the aforementioned head injuries, can be open (a wound) or closed (a blunt force) and are capable of causing brain death. Anoxia, or lack of oxygen to the brain, can bring about brain death -- it occurs when the brain is injured due to an inability of the lungs to produce oxygen for the brain to use. High-altitude breathing difficulty, smoke inhalation and drowning are some of the possible causes for anoxia to present itself.
Before doctors can make a diagnosis of brain stem death, they have to be sure to rule out certain other conditions that might be causing the symptoms. A drug overdose, for example, may deplete oxygen in the body, as can hypothermia and conditions such as diabetes that can impact the body's metabolic function.
Doctors make a diagnosis of brain stem death when certain conditions are met. Among these are unconsciousness in the patient; heart function and breathing that can only be kept going with artificial means; definitive proof that the brain has been harmed beyond repair; and an inability of the patient to respond to absolutely any external stimulus. The ruling can't be made by just one doctor; two physicians have to agree that a group of tests designed to show brain stem death have led them exactly to that conclusion. One such test is for the doctors to put very cold water in the patient's ears, which in a healthy person with brain function should cause the eyes to move [source: WebMD].
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