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Eureka! 'Human Consciousness' Mystery Solved by Breakthrough Study

Nov 10, 2016 04:10 AM EST
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Despite how great our present technologies may be, scientists have struggled to explain the science behind "human consciousness" or awareness of one's existence. Even philosophers could hardly get a grip of it. Now, Harvard researchers think they finally have the answers.

According to the study published in the society's journal, Neurology, the researchers, led by neurologists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) has pinpointed the regions of the brain that may play a role in keeping human consciousness.

"For the first time, we have found a connection between the brainstem region involved in arousal and regions involved in awareness, two prerequisites for consciousness," said Michael D. Fox, Director of the Laboratory for Brain Network Imaging and Modulation and the Associate Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at BIDMC in a press release. "A lot of pieces of evidence all came together to point to this network playing a role in human consciousness."

Previous researches suggest that human consciousness has two key components, such as arousal and awareness. Arousal is likely regulated by the brainstem while awareness has not been pin pointed, although it is suspected to lie in the cortex.

By mapping injuries of 36 patients with brainstem lesions (12 in coma and 24 are not), the researchers found out that those in coma had damage in a small "coma-specific" areas of their brainstem while most conscious patient did not have that.

As explained by Futurism, 10 of the 12 unconscious subjects had damage in the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum, a small area of the brainstem while only one out of the 24 conscious subjects had damage in the same area.

Psychology Today said the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum seems to drive consciousness through functional connectivity with two other cortical brain regions [ventral anterior insula (AI) and pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC)].

If the identified areas of the brain responsible for consciousness are right, this could lead to new treatment options for patients in comas.

"This is most relevant if we can use these networks as a target for brain stimulation for people with disorders of consciousness," said Fox. "If we zero in on the regions and network involved, can we someday wake someone up who is in a persistent vegetative state? That's the ultimate question."

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