Researchers Figure Out How to Switch Consciousness on And Off

Jul 07, 2014 07:10 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

Researchers from the George Washington University have figured out how to switch consciousness on and off in an epileptic woman by stimulating one region of the brain with electrical impulses.

The case study provides insight into the neural mechanism behind consciousness, which is a great interest that is often misunderstood despite decade's worth of research, according to a recently released study.

The study was published in Epilepsy & Behavior.

Little is known about the neural networks that underpin consciousness, despite significant advances in our understanding of the brain.

Research has provided a clue that consciousness is most likely the result of an integration of activity from a number of different locations of the brain.

A couple of years ago, Francis Crick and colleague Christof Koch released a theory that a brain region known as the claustrum could be at the heart of consciousness, linking together the constant input of information coming from different brain networks, according to the study.

The researchers demonstrated that their hypothesis could be correct by stimulating different areas of the brain of an epileptic woman and measuring resultant activity in order to find the epicenter of her seizures.

They found that electrical stimulation with an electrode placed between the left claustrum and anterior-dorsal insula caused the woman to lose consciousness. 

She stopped moving, her breathing slowed, and she became unresponsive, according to the study.

When they stopped the stimulation and she regained consciousness, the woman couldn't remember a thing. The effects were reproducible as the same outcome occurred each time they stimulated this region over the course of two days.

"I would liken it to a car," lead author Mohamad Koubeissi said, according to New Scientist. "A car on the road has many parts that facilitate its movement- the gas, the transmission, the engine- but there's only one spot where you turn the key and it all switches on and works together. So while consciousness is a complicated process created via many structures and networks- we may have found the key."

The woman spoke more quietly and moved less as she became unconscious, instead of immediately stopping, meaning this was having an effect on her consciousness.

They did not mention any associated epileptic activity, meaning it was not just a seizure.

 "This study is incredibly intriguing but it is one brick in a large edifice of consciousness that we're trying to build," Koch said.

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