Unlike so many of these stories about near-death visits to the spiritual realm, this story does not begin in a hospital operating room following the collapse of normal heart and/or lung function. My story begins over thirty years ago when I was working in a neurochemistry laboratory trying to understand the function of dopamine in the brain of rats.
Today, many people have heard about dopamine – the feel good, euphoria-producing brain chemical. Scientists have invented drugs to manipulate dopamine in order to treat our anxiety, addictions and depression. We now understand how many different popular drugs of abuse, such as cocaine and ecstasy, interact with it. Thirty years ago I was simply trying to understand its role in controlling the behavior of rats.
Measuring changes in dopamine is challenging because when the temperature of the body and level of oxygen in the blood drops, even a little, brain dopamine is very quickly converted into an entirely different molecule call 3-MT. Thus, in the few seconds that transpired between when the I removed the rat’s brain and then began to measure dopamine levels in the tissue, almost sixty percent of the dopamine had been transformed into 3-MT. My solution was to add up the number of 3-MT molecules with the number of dopamine molecules and assume that the total represented the number of dopamine molecules that were originally in the brain. Today, this is common approach.