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The concept of brain death did not evolve to benefit organ transplants
  1. Calixto Machado1,
  2. Julius Kerein2,
  3. Yazmina Ferrer1,
  4. Liana Portela1,
  5. Maria de la C García1,
  6. José M Manero1
  1. 1Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Havana, Cuba
  2. 2New York University Medical Center, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr C Machado
 Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Apartado Postal 4268, Ciudad de La Habana 10400, Cuba; braind{at}


Although it is commonly believed that the concept of brain death (BD) was developed to benefit organ transplants, it evolved independently. Transplantation owed its development to advances in surgery and immunosuppressive treatment; BD owed its origin to the development of intensive care. The first autotransplant was achieved in the early 1900s, when studies of increased intracranial pressure causing respiratory arrest with preserved heartbeat were reported. Between 1902 and 1950, the BD concept was supported by the discovery of EEG, Crile’s definition of death, the use of EEG to demonstrate abolition of brain potentials after ischaemia, and Crafoord’s statement that death was due to cessation of blood flow. Transplantation saw the first xenotransplant in humans and the first unsuccessful kidney transplant from a cadaver. In the 1950s, circulatory arrest in coma was identified by angiography, and the death of the nervous system and coma dépassé were described. Murray performed the first successful kidney transplant. In the 1960s, the BD concept and organ transplants were instantly linked when the first kidney transplant using a brain-dead donor was performed; Schwab proposed to use EEG in BD; the Harvard Committee report and the Sydney Declaration appeared; the first successful kidney, lung and pancreas transplants using cadaveric (not brain-dead) donors were achieved; Barnard performed the first human heart transplant. This historical review demonstrates that the BD concept and organ transplantation arose separately and advanced in parallel, and only began to progress together in the late 1960s. Therefore, the BD concept did not evolve to benefit transplantation.

  • BD, brain death
  • ICP, intracranial pressure

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  • Competing interests: None.

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    BMJ Publishing Group Ltd and Institute of Medical Ethics