J Korean Med Sci.  2020 Mar;35(11):e71. 10.3346/jkms.2020.35.e71.

Reflex and Spontaneous Movements in Adult Patients during the Process of Determining Brain Death in Korea

  • 1Department of Neurology, Samsung Changwon Hospital, Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine, Changwon, Korea.
  • 2Department of Neurology and Institute of Health Science, Gyeongsang National University Hospital, Gyeongsang National University School of Medicine, Jinju, Korea. youngsookim0127@gmail.com
  • 3Department of Neurology, Gyeongsang National University Changwon Hospital, Gyeongsang National University School of Medicine, Changwon, Korea.
  • 4Korea Organ Donation Agency, Seoul, Korea.
  • 5Department of Pediatrics, Gyeongsang National University School of Medicine, Jinju, Korea.


Brain death is a clinical diagnosis that implies irreversible loss of function of the entire brain, including the brainstem and both hemispheres. Based on previous reports, it is not rare for reflex and spontaneous movements to occur in patients during the process of determining brain death. However, reports of the frequency and common types of these movements vary from study to study. Thus, we evaluated adult patients with impending brain death in Korea to determine the frequency and characteristics of reflex and spontaneous movements.
Brain dead patients who were admitted to 15 hospitals in the Yeongnam region (Southeast) of Korea were recruited prospectively from January 2013 to September 2016. All patients met the criteria for brain death as established by the Korea Medical Association. All body movements occurred during the process of diagnosing brain death and were assessed by physicians and trained organ transplant coordinators. The frequency and characteristics of these movements were identified and the demographic and clinical factors of impending brain dead patients with and without these movements were compared.
A total of 436 patients who met the criteria for brain death were enrolled during the study period. Of these patients, 74 (17.0%) exhibited either reflex or spontaneous movements. Of this subset, 45 (60.8%) exhibited reflex movements only, 18 (24.3%) exhibited spontaneous movements only, and 11 (14.9%) exhibited both reflex and spontaneous movements. The most common reflex movements were the flexor/extensor plantar response and spinal myoclonus. Of the 74 patients, 52 (70.3%) exhibited one movement of the same pattern and 22 (29.7%) exhibited two or more different movement patterns. In addition, 45 (60.8%) exhibited these movements only on a limited area of the body with the leg being most common (n = 26, 57.8%). Patients with hypoxic brain damage and a higher systolic blood pressure exhibited significantly more reflex or spontaneous movements.
Movements associated with brain dead patients are not rare and thus an awareness of these movements is important to brain death diagnosis. Physicians who perform brain death examinations should understand the frequency and characteristics of these movements to reduce delays in determining brain death.


Brain Death; Reflex; Movement

MeSH Terms

Blood Pressure
Brain Death*
Brain Stem
Hypoxia, Brain
Prospective Studies
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