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There's a Giant Neuron Wrapped Around the Entire Brain

Mar 02, 2017 07:32 AM EST
'Mini brains' in the peripheral nervous system let the nerve cells exchange information, a process previously believed to be limited to the central nervous system.
(Photo : Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The brain -- the center of all human thought, emotion and sense -- is still such a mystery, particularly its ability to create consciousness. Now, scientists may have the answer.

Researchers recently uncovered a giant neuron wrapped around the entire outer layer of the mouse's brain that could help explain the way the brain creates consciousness, a report from Nature revealed. Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, presented his team's findings at a meeting of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative in Bethesda, Maryland last Feb. 15.

The traditional method of mapping a neuron's branches is exhaustive, using dye and tracing the cell's path by hand. Koch's group tried an innovative way of tracing the neuron by engineering "a line of mice so that a certain drug activated specific genes in claustrum neurons." When they fed the mice this drug, the genes of a handful of neurons were activated and produced a green-flourescent protein that swept through the whole neuron path.

To document the progress, the team captured 10,000 cross-sectional images of the mouse brain and created a 3D reconstruction of the three neurons.

With this technique, Koch discovered three extensive neurons that originate from the claustrum -- a region of the brain believed to be linked to consciousness -- and stretch to other regions in both hemispheres of the brain. One of the three neurons are wrapped around the brain's circumference much like a "crown of thorns," as described by Koch.

While the mouse body contains other long neurons, the newly discovered ones are linked to most or all of the outer parts of the brain that absorbs sensory information and drive behavior. Koch pointed out that this can be indicative of the neuron coordinating signals throughout the brain and creating consciousness.

After all, the claustrum is a significant part of the brain and the search for consciousness.

It was in 2013 when doctor Mohamad Koubeissi and his team at the George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates accidentally stumbled on a "consciousness on-off switch" while treating a 54-year-old woman for epilepsy, according to a report from Quartz.

The group found that stimulation to electrodes in the claustrum region of the brain rendered the patient unresponsive. She regained consciousness -- with no memory of the "lost" time period -- as soon as stimulation ceased.

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