A brain-dead individual has no electrical activity in the brain and no clinical evidence of brain function upon physical examination. This includes no response to pain and no cranial nerve reflexes. Reflexes include pupillary response (fixed pupils), oculocephalic reflex, corneal reflex, no response to the caloric reflex test and no spontaneous respirations.
It is important to distinguish between brain death and states that mimic brain death (e.g., barbiturate intoxication, alcohol intoxication, sedative overdose, hypothermia, hypoglycemia, coma or chronic vegetative states). Some comatose patients can recover, and some patients with severe irreversible neurologic dysfunction will nonetheless retain some lower brain functions such as spontaneous respiration, despite the losses of both cortex and brainstem functionality. Thus, anencephaly, in which there is no higher brain present, is generally not considered brain death, though it is certainly an irreversible condition in which it may be appropriate to withdraw life support.
Note that brain electrical activity can stop completely, or drop to such a low level as to be undetectable with most equipment. This includes a flat EEG during deep anaesthesia or cardiac arrest. To preclude these states being defined as brain death, the term refers only to the permanent cessation of electrical activity.
The diagnosis of brain death needs to be rigorous to determine whether the condition is irreversible. Legal criteria vary, but it generally requires neurological exams by two independent physicians. The exams must show complete absence of brain function, and may include two isoelectric (flat-line) EEGs 24 hours apart. The proposed Uniform Determination Of Death Act in the
Alternatively, a radionuclide cerebral blood flow scan that shows complete absence of intracranial blood flow can be used to confirm the diagnosis without performing EEGs.