Researchers at George Washington University have reported that while treating an epileptic patient they accidentally discovered what they referred as the human consciousness on-off switch, deep within the brain.
Human brain is the most complex structure in the universe. It comprises of billions of cells. The scientists claim that they have discovered that area of the brain that controls consciousness.
The claustrum, , “a thin, sheet-like structure that lies hidden deep inside the brain,” seems to bind together all of our senses, perceptions, and computations into single, cohesive experience.
Scientists have been trying for long to figure out how exactly consciousness works and the concept behind it. And if proved right this discovery will open the path in certain areas of medicine.
“This study is incredibly intriguing but it is one brick in a large edifice of consciousness that we’re trying to build … Ultimately, if we know how consciousness is created and which parts of the brain are involved then we can understand who has it and who doesn’t”, said American neuroscientist Cristof Koch.
Led by Mohamad Koubeissi, of the George Washington University in Washington DC, the researchers were using deep brain electrodes to monitor brain signals of the patient and try to pinpoint the area of a patient’s brain that was causing her seizures. One of the electrodes was placed on the claustrum with electrodes.
This caused the women to lost consciousness when the area was stimulated with high frequency electrical impulses. Her breathing slowed down and she stopped responding to visual and auditory stimuli.
She regained her consciousness with no memory of what just happened.
The experiment was repeated for two days, by zapping electrical impulses in the same area and the the same result was achieved every time.
This test has been performed on one patient and a portion of her hippocampus was removed prior to the experiment as part of her epilepsy treatment. So the results, although consistent, are not representative of a “normal brain”.
The team will be investigating whether low frequency stimulation on the claustrum could also jolt back consciousness, which can help in treatment for people trapped in minimally conscious states.
Koubeissi compared the human body to a car, where the ignition represents the claustrum of the brain. “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,” said Koubeissi.
Koulbeissi says. “Perhaps we could try to stimulate this region in an attempt to push them out of this state.”
The study, entitled Electrical stimulation of a small brain area reversibly disrupts consciousness, was published in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior.