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Scientists Discover On-Off Switch To A Person’s Consciousness

July 7, 2014

Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe online

An orchestra, consisting of woodwinds, strings, percussion and brass instruments, each work off a score specific to the instrument they are playing. They each contribute a layer to the overall performance that, by themselves, would paint only a limited picture of what the piece was meant to sound like. Imagine Beethoven’s 5th Symphony where all you heard were the oboes playing. The conductor, standing before the full written score, is necessary to extract each nuance from each instrument to provide the vibrant reality of the opus.

The above example was one Francis Crick, famous for being the co-discoverer of the DNA double-helix, along with James Watson in 1953, liked to use in describing the search for the origin of consciousness in the human brain. Many different parts of the brain are required for perceiving different elements of consciousness of touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell. However, Crick hypothesized, along with his colleague Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, that there must be one specific part of the brain that acted as the conductor, bringing all of the individual elements together into one cohesive and understandable concept of consciousness.

Ten years after Crick died, his and Koch’s hypothesis has apparently been proven correct with the initial discovery that one specific part of the brain is responsible for regulating consciousness. The discovery was made, as reported by newscientist.com, when scientists, working with a patient suffering from severe epilepsy, found they could effectively shut off the individual’s consciousness by sending an electrical impulse to an area of the brain known as the claustrum.

The study of different regions of the brain, trying to determine specific functions, has been occurring for more than a century. Scientists have been using electricity to target areas and learn just what function a certain region was responsible for regulating. Until now, however, never once has any study been able to shut off a person’s consciousness.

The team behind this study, led by Mohamad Koubeissi of George Washington University in Washington, DC, detailed how they had placed one of several electrodes directly next to the claustrum of the individual. This area has never been the subject of electrical stimulation in previous studies.

Prior to high frequency electrical impulse stimulation, the patient had been engaged in the act of reading. As soon as the impulse was sent to the claustrum, she stopped reading and simply stared off into space. Regardless of both the auditory and visual commands presented to her, she failed to respond and her breathing slowed. However, once the electrical impulse was stopped, she immediately regained consciousness and presented absolutely no memory of the episode. This same situation played out each time the claustrum was stimulated over two days of testing.

While the team was certain they were on to something, they wanted to make certain it was indeed the woman’s consciousness and not just her ability to speak or move that they were affecting. To determine this, they asked her to repeat the word ‘house’ or snap her fingers before stimulation began. If, in fact, movement or speech were being disrupted rather than consciousness then she would have stopped speaking or moving immediately upon stimulation. Instead, she gradually spoke more quietly and moved slower as she drifted into unconsciousness. For anyone who has ever gone under the knife, think about how far you got when the anesthesiologist asked you to count backwards from 10.

This study, though only based on a single individual, is highly suggestive of the fact that the claustrum could likely be the conductor that brings together all of our disparate brain activity and turns it into a symphony of thoughts, sensations and emotions. The team is publishing their results in the August edition of the journal Epilepsy and Behavior.

“Normally, when we look at conscious states,” explained Anil Seth, who studies consciousness at the University of Sussex in the UK, “we are looking at awake versus sleep, or coma versus vegetative state, or anesthesia. So even though it’s a single case study, it’s potentially quite informative about what’s happening when you selectively modulate consciousness alone.”

And speaking on how one of the fathers of the modern understanding of DNA would feel about this current news, Christof Koch stated, “Francis would have been pleased as punch.”

This revelation by Koch comes from a firsthand account by Crick’s wife that, on his deathbed, he was hallucinating an argument with Koch about how the claustrum must have a connection to consciousness.

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Source: Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe online



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