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Discovered: the 'Switch' to Human Consciousness

Jul 07, 2014 11:41 AM EDT

Researchers appear to have stumbled upon the key to consciousness, finding how to "turn off and on" the consciousness of the human mind while a patient is awake through direct neural stimulus.

The discovery was made in the midst of open brain surgery on en epileptic patient, according to a single case study published in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior.

In severe cases of epilepsy, neurologists sometimes resort to removing certain portions of the brain to prevent intense and frequent seizures from occurring. That is what recently happened with one woman, who agreed to have her surgery also serve as a case study for different parts of the brain potential associated with the debilitating brain disorder.

Brain surgery patients are often awake for their procedure in order for neurologists to ensure they are not removing an exceptionally vital part of the brain. Patients are asked to read or sing aloud, in some ways to prevent potential drastic changes to their own personality or intellect.

In this single case, an epileptic woman who was having a portion of her hippocampus removed was asked to read while Mohamad Koubeissi and his colleagues stimulated various parts of her brain with "deep brain" electrodes.

According to the study, the experts had been in the midst of stimulating the claustrum - a thin, irregular, sheet-like neuronal structure deep in the brain - when their patient stopped reading entirely, and began to stare blankly. She reportedly did not respond to the researchers, and her breathing slowed. The patient also immediately regained composure and continued reading without any memory of the event occurring when the stimulus stopped.

In a study published in the journal Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society B in 2005, renowned neurologists Francis Crick and Christof Koch theorized that the claustrum may be tied to consciousness. On his death bed, Crick even still argued with Koch about the claustrum being the control of consciousness, according to New Scientist.

In this latest study, Koubeissi adds credence to this theory. He and his team tested their patient in several other ways - asking her to repeat words or snap her finger before stimulating her claustrum. Each time, the stimulus led to a gradual decrease in action until it stopped entirely, indicating a loss in consciousness. Had the stimulation simply been leading to a halt in motor or language function, the stop would have been immediate.

"I would liken it to a car," Koubeissi told 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."

It should be noted that this discovery was made in only one patient, and a patient with an epileptic brain already missing part of its hippocampus at that. Still, the researchers say that if these results can be reproduced in other cases, they may be onto something groundbreaking.

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