Ep. 35 Why brain dead isn’t dead: An introduction to “Shewmon’s Challenge”

D. Alan Shewmon, MD

One of the most fundamental questions that a doctor may be asked to answer is the following:  Is this man or is that woman dead?  And one would think that any substantial controversy regarding the determination of death would feature prominently in the medical curriculum and in basic medical textbooks.  Instead, such discussions and debates have been relegated to narrow specialty medical and philosophical journals, and most practicing physicians are remarkably unaware about the state of knowledge on this question.

Our guest on this episode is D. Alan Shewmon, MD, Professor Emeritus of Pediatric Neurology at UCLA. His work, comprising decades of well-documented clinical observations and reflections, is now known as “Shewmon’s challenge,” a compelling rebuke to the principal arguments put forth to defend the concept of brain death.


D. Alan Shewmon, MD.  List of scholarly publications on PubMed.


Shewmon DA. Chronic “brain death”:  Meta-analysis and conceptual consequences. (in Neurology, 1998).

Shewmon DA, Holmes GL, and Byrne PA.  Consciousness in congenitally decorticate children: A self-fulfilling prophecy.  (Open Access, in Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 1999)

Shewmon DA. Truly reconciling the case of Jahi McMath.  (in Neurocritical Care, 2018)

VIDEOTAPED LECTURE: The Case of Jahi McMath: A Neurologist’s View.  (Starts at [41:53] mark.  Part of the 2018 conference at Harvard Medical School, Defining Death: Organ Transplantation and the 50-year Legacy of the Harvard Report of Brain Death.)

Rachel Aviv.  What does in mean to die?  (article on the case of Jahi McMath in The New Yorker, 2018)


Watch the episode on our YouTube channel.


  1. Ep. 45 Brain Death at the Bedside on 11/22/2018 at 7:44 AM

    […] Ep. 35 Why Brain Dead Isn’t Dead: An Introduction to Shewmon’s Challenge […]

  2. Elizabeth Barney on 01/12/2019 at 6:57 AM

    This is so distressing- it makes me feel like we in the medical field will have to be unintentionally potentially complicit in possible misdiagnoses until the guidelines are clarified. And/or families will have a horrible burden on deciding how to care for these patients and we will struggle to guide them. Jahi’s mother was bankrupt, depressed and questioning in the Atlantic article. She wasn’t sure whether she made the right choice.

    Thanks for an interesting discussion.

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