Thursday, August 03, 2006

Decentralisation and dispersion of cells

What is death? Dr. R.L. Bijlani Editor's note Written by an eminent physiologist, this article explores different aspects of death.
Somatic death and molecular death
Somatic death is said to have occurred when the person as a whole is no longer alive. The criteria of clinical death refer to somatic death. After somatic death, maintaining oxygen supply through artificial life-support can keep several organs alive for long periods as discussed above. But even if no artificial life-support is used, the cells in different organs and tissues stay alive for variable periods of time after somatic death. Death of the cells is called cellular or molecular death. In general, molecular death occurs earliest in organs which have the richest blood supply during life. Brain cells undergo molecular death within five minutes of somatic death, and muscle cells after about one hour, but blood cells and the cornea stay alive even five hours after somatic death. As an organ can be transplanted only before it has undergone molecular death, the brain cannot be transplanted.
Suspended animation
Suspended animation is a state of extreme reduction in metabolic activity. The person may appear dead but the bare minimum of metabolic activity is still going on throughout the body, and the person can return to normal activity. Some yogns can achieve a marked reduction in metabolic activity voluntarily, and thereby stay alive for relatively long periods in a place with highly restricted oxygen supply, such as an underground pit. One such yogn was examined by Prof. B.K. Anand and his colleagues at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The yogn could bring down his metabolic rate to about half the ‘normal’ resting metabolic rate (6). A similar state is achieved clinically when hypothermia is induced to facilitate certain surgical procedures. Sometimes a person goes into suspended animation after drowning or electrocution. A person exposed to extreme cold may sometimes have all the signs of clinical death, but may revive after rewarming. The dictum in such cases is that the patient is not dead unless warm and dead.
The process of death
Life is maintained in complex multi-cellular organisms like man by a delicate balance of homeostatic mechanisms which ensure optimal conditions for the functioning of all cells of the body. In view of the complexity of the homeostatic mechanisms that maintain life, it is not surprising that sooner or later something goes wrong at some crucial point and life comes to an end. What is more surprising is that this happens after such a long time. One of the keys to our long lifespan is provided by the basic units of life — the cells. Most cells of the body have a lifespan much shorter than the organism to which they belong. But the process of cell division ensures that new cells replace the cells that die. The process of replacement is so exact that we do not notice the turnover and treat each individual as a stable entity. Imagine a machine from which only a few parts are removed at a time, replaced promptly, and then a few more parts removed from elsewhere, again replaced promptly, and so on. Soon a time will come when all the old parts have been replaced by new ones. In effect, what we have is a new machine but we remain under the illusion that it is the same old machine!
Cell death
Cells may die due to an injury or poison. Cell death in this fashion is called necrosis. Cells which undergo necrosis swell and burst. However, what has engaged the attention of scientists very intensively during the last twenty-five years is programmed cell death, or apoptosis (pronounced app-oh-toe-sis). It seems that a cell normally generates a variety of molecules, some of which send survival signals whilst others send death signals to the cell. So long as survival signals dominate, the cell stays alive. Dominance of death signals triggers apoptosis. This mode of apoptosis has been termed 'cell suicide’. Cell death by a similar mechanism may be triggered also by toxic substances generated by neighbouring cells, e.g. by cytokines released by immune cells. This mode of apoptosis has been termed ‘murder’. Neighbouring cells do not necessarily send lethal substances. They may also send trophic factors, e.g. the trophic factors released by nerve cells which keep neighbouring nerve cells, or the muscle cells which they innervate, alive.
Regulators of cell death act through a series of chain reactions affecting the genetic expression of some proteins, which in turn may eventually activate enzymes called caspases. Caspases are the final mediators of the apoptotic pathway. These enzymes break down protein molecules. Their name is based on the fact that they selectively cleave protein molecules at sites just C-terminal to aspartate residues. Caspases target proteins of the nuclear lamina and cytoskeleton. Attack on these critical structures eventually leads to cell death (7).
Why do cells have to die?
Using oxygen markedly increases the amount of energy that can be obtained from nutrient substrates. But it is also associated with the formation of reactive oxygen species which can damage the cells by attacking fats, proteins and nucleic acids. Although various defence mechanisms against oxidative damage have been built into cells, some damage does occur. Such damage is cumulative, and seems to be one of the contributors to the process of aging. It seems that a stage finally comes in the life of a cell when the damage reaches such a level that further survival of the cell would not be in the best interests of the body as a whole. At this stage some unknown trigger triggers the apoptotic pathway, leading to 'cell suicide’. Some healthy cells may also undergo apoptosis, e.g. during embryonic life to sculpt tissues into a specific shape. Thus normal cells have no hesitation in quitting when no longer needed, or when their survival is no longer in the interests of the body as a whole.
Death and cell death
If cell death is a well-regulated process, and dying cells are replaced by new ones, why does the organism die? This happens because the situation is a little more complex. We live in a hostile, competitive environment. A variety of chemical, physical and biological agents threaten our existence. The reason we still survive is because responding to these agents is a part of the cellular defence mechanisms. If the challenge is overwhelming, or the response is inadequate, more cells may die than can be replaced. Inadequate response is a part of the process of aging. Even in the absence of an external onslaught, there may be apparently spontaneous abnormalities, which occur more frequently with aging. These changes may be: first, inadequate replacement of dead cells (atrophy); second, replacement by inadequately or inappropriately functioning cells (degeneration or scarring); or third, transformation into neoplastic cells. When such changes take place in any part of the body, initially nothing wrong may be observed because of the enormous physiological reserve. If the physiological reserve is exhausted, it impacts the body depending on the organ involved and the degree of involvement. Impairment of function beyond a point in one or more vital organs results in death of the whole organism.
Death in uni-cellular organisms
In uni-cellular organisms, death is not a clearly discernible event. The reason is that long before the cell accumulates enough damage to die, it divides. The division results in two identical cells, each of them exactly like the parent cell. Since the parent is indistinguishable from the progeny, and very large numbers of such cells may be produced before some of them die, it is impossible to say when the parent cell died. This argument applies not only to uni-cellular organisms but to some extent to all organisms reproducing asexually. One may like to speculate that if asexual reproduction guarantees virtual (not real) immortality, why sexual reproduction evolved at all. Sexual reproduction makes it possible for the progeny to be different from the parents. The possibility of progeny improving upon the parents, facilitates evolution. One might say that asexual reproduction is like photocopying while sexual reproduction is creative art.
II. Metaphysical aspects of death
Decentralisation and dispersion of cells
The Mother described death as the
“decentralisation and dispersion of the cells which make up the physical body (8).”
To elaborate, She said, “Death is the decentralisation of the consciousness contained in the body’s cells (9).”
The Supreme Consciousness expresses itself in the universe in diverse forms. Each form expresses the universal Consciousness to varying degrees. Although the level of expression differs, every atom has a consciousness, every cell has a consciousness, and every individual has a consciousness. During much of the lifetime of an individual, the consciousness of each cell is centred around the consciousness of the individual. But there comes a time when this centralisation becomes weak. As the Mother says,
“The central will of the physical being abdicates its will to hold all the cells together… It is this which inevitably precedes death (10).”
In order to understand why and when the process of decentralisation begins, one may turn to what happens before decentralisation. The consciousness of the individual is not static during life. Its ultimate destiny is to meet its source, or to express the Supreme Consciousness or Universal Spirit completely. These steps are taken using the body as an instrument. As a result of these steps, there is a growth in the consciousness of the individual. But due to the limited plasticity of the body, further growth of consciousness is not possible while retaining the same body. The body which served as an instrument for the growth of consciousness now becomes a bar to further growth.
“The whole sense of the evolution of matter has been a growth from a first state of unconsciousness to an increasing consciousness. And in this process of growth dissolution of forms became an inevitable necessity, as things actually took place. For a fixed form was needed in order that the organised individual consciousness might have a stable support. And yet it is the fixity of the form that made death inevitable. Matter had to assume forms; individualisation and the concrete embod-iment of life-forces or consciousness-forces were impossible without it and without these there would have been lacking the first conditions of organised existence on the plane of matter. But a definite and concrete formation contracts the tendency to become at once rigid and hard and petrified. The individual form persisted as a too binding mould; it cannot follow the movements of the forces; it cannot change in harmony with the progressive change in the universal dynamism; it cannot meet continually Nature’s demand or keep pace with her; it gets out of the current. At a certain point of this growing disparity and disharmony between the form and the force that presses upon it, a complete dissolution of the form is unavoidable. A new form must be created; a new harmony and parity made possible. This is the true significance of death and this is its use in Nature (11).”
It is possibly when the material form becomes inadequate for responding to the pressure for further growth of consciousness that there develops, in the words of the Mother,
“a kind of disgust with continuing the effort of coordination and harmonisation (12).”
The ‘central will’ to retain a collective consciousness gives way to decentralisation of the individual consciousness of each cell. At the mental level, the replacement of the ‘will to live’ by a ‘wish to die’ is probably the beginning of decentralisation. Decentralisation is followed by ill-health, and finally death. Death is followed by dissolution of the body, leading to dispersion of cells. Eventually, the cells also dissolve, leading to dispersion of the atoms which compose them. The atoms may regroup themselves into new cells. The new cells may regroup into a new body.
A spiritual understanding of the process of death, as provided by the Mother in terms of decentralisation and dispersion of cells, throws some light on the purpose of life. During the limited lifespan of an individual, the growth of consciousness achieved by the individual leaves an imprint on the matter composing the body. Dispersion of cells possibly transmits the new level of consciousness to the new forms it assumes. In the words of the Mother, “It is the consciousness of the cells that enters other combinations (13).”
In keeping with the trends of our times, a question is likely to be raised regarding the scientific validity of decentralisation and dispersion of cells. Before we attempt to answer any such question, we need to remind ourselves that first, scientific truths are limited by the presumptions and methods of science; second, spiritual truths are wider and higher than scientific truths; and finally, seeing spiritual truths requires methods which are available to all but cultivated by very few.
Scientifically, the tendency of the central will to hold all the cells of the body together during life may be partly reflected in the single aim towards which all cells in the body work, i.e. to maintain homeostasis. Some cells replenish oxygen, some replenish food material, some remove waste products, while some coordinate the activities of all the rest, but all these individual functions are merely contributions towards the one common goal of maintaining homeostasis in the body as a whole. The beginning of ill health is a breakdown in the harmony between the activities of different parts of the body, leading to derangement in homeostasis. This breakdown may create the decentralisation of cells. The dispersion and dissolution of cells and consequent dissemination of a new level of consciousness after death of the individual, are issues beyond the competence of science to examine and comment upon.
However, if a parallel may be drawn, there seems to be a correspondence with the law of conservation. Not only matter and energy but also the soul of the individual seems to follow this law. They are all equally indestructible. Just as the matter belonging to an individual is recyled, his spiritual element represented by the soul is recycled too. Neither the material body nor the soul are destroyed, but both are recycled and enter new temporary consolidations which we call individuals. Body is con-solidated matter, and the soul is consolidated Spirit.
At the birth of an individual, matter manifests the Spirit; during life, matter serves as an instrument of the Spirit; after death, matter serves as a vehicle for dissemination of the Spirit. If life has been used for growth of consciousness, the disseminated matter manifests the Spirit less imperfectly than at birth.
Time of death
It is commonly held without any evidence, but with great conviction, that the time of death is fixed right at the time of birth, and that nothing can be done to change it. It is also commonly believed, with some evidence, but with far less conviction, that a person can delay or hasten his death if he strongly wants it. When asked to clarify this issue, the Mother said that we live in a deterministic universe, but qualified it by saying that there are different layers of determinism. On the purely material plane, the time of death is inexorably fixed. But if one rises to a higher plane of consciousness, a different type of determinism prevails. At higher planes, this determinism looks like free will, although there is nothing like free will in the universe. It is just that the laws that govern the higher planes are different; creating an illusion of free will is a part of those laws. To give an analogy, the computer sometimes seems to think and behave intelligently. But in fact the computer can neither think nor has any intelligence. Its behaviour is exactly as determined by the programmer. In the same way, we act exactly as determined by our Programmer (the Divine), but seem to possess free will. The semblance of free will is inherent in the programme. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for seeming free will in relation to the time of death. Benefitting apparently from a strong will to live and confidence in self-healing, patients with incurable cancers often defy all statistics and live much longer than expected. More commonly, patients sometimes live for a few weeks or months after all hope is lost as if merely to reach a milestone such as a birthday or a child’s wedding. Still more commonly, patients go steadily downhill in spite of all treatment once they have lost the will to live. Nothing seems to help once the patient has given in or given up. A significant determinant of the course of an illness are the ‘live’ or ‘die’ signals generated by the patient himself, depending on the attitude to disease and life. Psychoneuroimmunology (14) now has some partial but plausible explanations for these phenomena. The spiritual explanation provided by the Mother is that a person does not die till he gives his consent. It may be only for “the hundredth part of a second”. As She says, there is always something in the person which, out of fatigue or disgust, says:
“Well, Ah! Let it be finished, so much the better (15).”
Premonition of death
Support for the validity of premonition of death is generally cited in terms of positive cases looked at retrospectively. This is indefensible because the process neglects a large number of cases in which the premonition is not followed by death. It is possible that even an unbiased study might detect that the premonition is followed by death more frequently than can be accounted for purely by chance. But that could be another way of looking at loss of the will to live. If a person loses the will to live, he is likely to also get the premonition of death because nobody is immune to wishful thinking, specially in a helpless state. Psychoneuroimmunology provides a limited biological explanation for the march towards death being accelerated by loss of the will to live.
Life and death
Two interesting questions, to which there can be both physiological and spiritual answers, are whether death is a reality and whether death is necessary. Physiologically, death is only a partial reality because a bit of the protoplasm continues to live, even after death, in the progeny. Physiologically, death is also necessary for getting around the problem of imperfection of the body. The body, like any machine, cannot function for ever. Therefore renewal by reproduction has got to be coupled with death, old order yielding to the new. Thus reproduction and death are two sides of the same coin and are designed to keep open the possibility of evolution of better, less imperfect forms of life.
Spiritually speaking, the answers are similar although the arguments are different and deeper. Death is a partial reality because it results in a breaking up of one form of life for reconstruction into new forms. Nothing may perish, but the configuration existing before death ceases to exist. Recycling, reconstruction and renewal are the basic features of life. As Sri Aurobindo says:
“Death is imposed on the individual life both by the conditions of its own existence and by its relations to the All-Force which manifests itself in the universe. For the individual life is a particular play of energy specialised to constitute, maintain, energise and finally to dissolve when its utility is over, one of the myriad forms which all serve, each in its own place, time and scope, the whole play of the universe (16).”
The immortality of the soul, commonly assumed by many, is clarified by Sri Aurobindo as:
“… when we insist on the soul’s undying existence, what is meant is the survival after death of a definite unchanging personality which was and will always remain the same throughout eternity. It is the very imperfect superficial ‘I’ of the moment, evidently regarded by Nature as a temporary form and not worth preservation, for which we demand this stupendous right to survival and immortality. But the demand is extravagant and cannot be conceded; the ‘I’ of the moment can only merit survival if it consents to change, to be no longer itself but something else, greater, better, more luminous in knowledge, more moulded in the image of the eternal inner beauty, more and more progressive towards the divinity of the secret Spirit. It is that secret Spirit or divinity of Self in us which is imperishable, because it is unborn and eternal (17).”
Thus it is only the divine Spirit which is immortal, not the entire configuration of the individual. Immortality of the soul resides in the fact that it is a projection of the divine Spirit.
Spiritually speaking, death is also a necessity. The manifest universe expresses the Supreme Consciousness only in a rudimentary form. Matter expresses so little of it as to seem inconscient. Man expresses it better than any other form in the universe known to us, but still falls far short of full expression. Man is probably the only creature who can achieve a significant growth of consciousness during life. But due to the inherent inertia of matter, there comes a point when the physical body cannot respond any further to the evolutionary thrust for further growth of consciousness. At that point, it becomes necessary for the body to disintegrate and death provides the mechanism for fulfilling this necessity. It is interesting that the mere knowledge that death is inevitable ensures some growth of consciousness. All religious and spiritual traditions goad us to mend our ways. We often ignore these exhortations, but in old age, when the inevitable seems close, we turn to spirituality. The growth of consciousness a person may achieve in the short period between getting a terminal illness and death may exceed the growth achieved in the entire life before the illness. Not only the dying, but also those who take care or come in close contact with the dying, may experience a similar surge of spiritual growth.
If man were immortal, he would probably have no incentive for genuine improvement.
“…it is obvious that the most dominant characteristic of matter is inertia, and that, if there were not this violence, perhaps the individual consciousness would be so inert that rather than change it would accept to live in a perpetual imperfection (18).”
Death is Nature’s answer to two properties of matter: its tendency to decay and its inability to respond, beyond a point, to the demands of spiritual growth. Out of the two, the latter is a deeper reason why death is necessary. As Sri Aurobindo says:
“Even if Science … were to discover the necessary conditions or means for an indefinite survival of the body, still, if the body could not adapt itself so as to become a fit instrument of expression for the inner growth, the soul would find some way to abandon it and pass on to a new incarnation. The material or physical causes of death are not its sole or its true cause; its true inmost reason is the spiritual necessity for the evolution of a new being (19).”
Thus death is spiritually necessary; aging and the associated decline in function are only incidental excuses. However, that does not mean death will always be there in its present form. Immortality may not be feasible for the material body, but with the descent of a new level of consciousness on earth, life at will could well be a reality. Death is no longer inevitable, says the Mother. The reason why it still continues is because it was previously “an inescapable habit”, “the memory of a disastrous past (20).”
Summary
Life is a phenomenon shrouded in mystery, and so is death. Clinical death is now defined as the permanent and irreversible cessation of function of any one of the three interconnected vital systems, viz. nervous system, circulatory system and respiratory system. Even after the person as a whole is no longer alive, individual cells and tissues remain viable for variable periods of time, making their transplantation possible. Physiologically, death represents failure of the homeostatic mechanisms. Cell death by necrosis as well as apoptosis is a regular phenomenon, but the organism continues to be alive due to replacement of cells. However, a point is reached when replacement and physiological reserve are unable to compensate for deterioration due to aging. Impairment of function beyond a point in one or more vital organs results in death of the whole organism.
The Mother described death as the “decentralisation and dispersion of cells (21).”
At the mental level, the replacement of the ‘will to live’ by a ‘wish to die’ is probably the beginning of decentralisation. Decentralisation is followed by ill-health, and finally death.
On the purely material plane, the time of death is inexorably fixed. But on higher planes of consciousness, a different type of determinism prevails. That is why the will to live, or its absence, may have a role in determining the time of death. Psychoneuroimmunology provides some partial but plausible explanations for the phenomenon.
Death is both a physiological and a spiritual necessity. As Sri Aurobindo says:
“Even if Science…were to discover the necessary conditions or means for an indefinite survival of the body, …the soul would find some way to abandon it and pass on to a new incarnation …its true inmost reason is the spiritual necessity for the evolution of a new being(22).”
However, that does not mean death will always be there in its present form. The Mother reassures us that with the descent of a new level of consciousness on earth, death is now “the memory of a disastrous past (23).”
References1. Kubler-Ross E. On Death and Dying. New York; Touchstone, 1997.2. Spitz W.U., Fisher R.S. (Eds.). Medicolegal Investigation of Death: guidelines for the application of pathology to crime investigation 2nd edition. Springfield, Illinois; Charles C. Thomas, 1980, p. 12.3. Nandy A. Principles of Forensic Medicine 2nd edition. Kolkata; New Central Book Agency, 2000, p. 133.4. Ibid.,5. Bijlani R.L. Understanding Medical Physiology 3rd edition. New Delhi; Jaypee, 2004, p. 849.6. Anand B.K., Chhina G.S., Singh B. Studies on Shri Ramanand Yogi during his stay in an airtight box. Indian J Med Res 1961: 82-9.7. Lodish H., Berk A., Zipursky S.L., Matsudaira P, Baltimore D., Darnell J. Molecular Cell Biology 4th edition. New York; W.H. Freeman, 2000, pp. 1044-51.8. The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 12. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1978, p. 343.9. The Mother. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 10. Paris; Institut de Recherches Evolutives, 1998, p.475.10. Op. cit. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 12. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, p. 343-4.11. Op. cit. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 3. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1977, p. 37.12. Op. cit. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 12. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1978, p. 343.13. Ibid., p. 345.14. Kiecolt-Glaser J.K., McGuire L., Robles T.F., Glaser R. Emotions, morbidity, and mortality: new perspectives from psychoneuroimmunology. Annu Rev Psy-chol 2002: 83-107.15. Op. cit. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 5. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1976, p. 138.16. Sri Aurobindo. The Life Divine. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1970, p. 192.17. Ibid. p. 821.18. Op. cit.Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 9. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1977, p. 34.19. Op. cit. The Life Divine. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1970, p. 822.20. Op. cit. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 9. Paris; Institut de Recherches Evolutives, 1998, p. 56.21. Op. cit. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 12. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1978, p. 342.22. Op. cit. The Life Divine. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1970, p. 822.23. Op. cit. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 9. Paris; Institut de Recherches Evolutives, 1998, p. 56.
Dr.R.L. Bijlani has been working on Yoga/physiology at the India Institute of Medical Science, New Delhi for many years.

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