Science

Researchers find a "consciousness switch" deep in the brain

Researchers find a "consciousn...
Scientists claim to have identified a tiny area of the brain that can switch consciousness on and off when hit with electric stimulation
Scientists claim to have identified a tiny area of the brain that can switch consciousness on and off when hit with electric stimulation
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Scientists claim to have identified a tiny area of the brain that can switch consciousness on and off when hit with electric stimulation
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Scientists claim to have identified a tiny area of the brain that can switch consciousness on and off when hit with electric stimulation
The central lateral thalamus is found deep in the center of the brain, close to the brain stem
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The central lateral thalamus is found deep in the center of the brain, close to the brain stem

There's an incredible amount we don't understand about the workings of the human body and brain, and consciousness itself remains one of the great mysteries of science. Which is weird, because in some senses it's about the only thing we can be sure exists. It doesn't matter whether life is a simulation, or even whether you really exist, I know that I'm having a subjective experience, and that may be the only truth each of us can be sure of.

The fact that this subjective experience can be switched off, whether by dropping into a deep sleep, getting knocked out or going under anesthesia, does nothing but add to the weirdness of it all. Things are happening to and around you, your awareness is just not online. The fact that there are highly paid and highly trained anesthetists who put people to sleep for a living merely reflects decades of trial and error, rather than a complete understanding of how an anesthetic drug works.

Now, researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, appear to have made a bit of a breakthrough. In a study published in the journal Neuron, the team showed that at a frequency of 50 Hz, electrical stimulation of the central lateral thalamus, a region once thought of mainly as a relay, amplification and processing station, was able to pull macaque monkeys out of an anesthetized state and elicit normal waking behaviors.

Scientists have long been studying the thalamus, which sits deep in the brain near the brain stem, to learn what role it plays in sleep, waking, consciousness and alertness. But this research, in which targeted electrical stimulation was applied to a specific area, narrowed the search down further than ever before. The electrodes used in the study were more tailored to the shape of the brain structures they were designed to work on, and the electrical stimulation was designed to mimic the activity of a normal, waking brain.

The central lateral thalamus is found deep in the center of the brain, close to the brain stem
The central lateral thalamus is found deep in the center of the brain, close to the brain stem

"We found that when we stimulated this tiny little brain area, we could wake the animals up and reinstate all the neural activity that you'd normally see in the cortex during wakefulness," says senior author and assistant professor Yuri Saalmann. "They acted just as they would if they were awake. When we switched off the stimulation, the animals went straight back to being unconscious."

The researchers hope this discovery might be able to help people with "disorders of consciousness" – for example, it might be possible to bring people out of comas with consciousness-starting devices, or give narcolepsy sufferers the ability to self-stimulate when they're falling asleep at an inopportune time.

What's more, anesthetists could use these findings to potentially keep tabs on whether patients are properly under, and when they might be starting to wake up, avoiding some rare but traumatic operating theater experiences. You've also got to wonder if there's a cure for insomnia in there somewhere, or the ability to switch off and sleep through a long plane flight. Time will tell.

The study was published in the journal Neuron.

Source: Cell Press via Science Daily

11 comments
ptim
As foreshadowed by Stephen Donaldson in the Gap Series...
FB36
Isn't it really happens to everybody (& countless times!) that, you have a "big day" tomorrow, but you cannot sleep (no matter what you try)? IMHO, any kind of tech (thru Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)?), that can make a person fell asleep fast, anytime needed, would be immensely valuable to whole humanity!
pres10
Could this switch be used to help comatose people? That would great if we could wake people from a coma - at will.
Ed
How is this news? Didn't this happen years ago? https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329762-700-consciousness-on-off-switch-discovered-deep-in-brain/amp/
neutrino23
Regarding the New Scientist article, that is quite interesting. It refers to a different part of the brain and produced the opposite effect. The New Scientist research could make a person unconscious by electrical stimulation. This article could make sedated monkeys conscious by electrical stimulation. The brain is incredibly complex. Poking around with electrical probes like this is great information, but we have a long way to go to understand how the brain works.
Jonquil Redway
No .. that past (2014) article referred to stimulation of a different part of the brain, the claustrum. Different type of research.
RangerJones
Wish I had a switch that worked on chosen subjects.
Sal Restivo
Paying attention to a century of work in the sociology of mind and brain from G.H..Mead to R. Collins and myself would help dispel a lot of the mystery of consciousness. That mystery is due in great part to studying a sociocultural phenomenon using the tools of the physical and natural sciences and the mental gymnastics of philosophers. See my Einstein’s Brain (2020).
Richard Graham
Uh huh. A spirit hitchhiking on a complex, mammalian structure. Show Me Your "Mind" not your brain. I'm posting a URL for your detached and open-minded consideration. I have no other purpose than this. You and you alone are the searcher and prover of truth for yourself. https://bahaiteachings.org/is-material-world-mirage/ Grant me a bit of slack here as I toss some "spiritual" guidance into a scientific consideration. In one of Paul's letters, I'm remembering Thessalonians Chap. 5 Verse...hmmm, 21 or so. The subject was how to tell false guidance from the truth. Paul writes, "test all things, hold fast that which is good." That's it. Of course it's not that "simple," we can't start testing with the assumption that we already know the answer...the confirmation bias error, we need to put aside everything we think we know, love or hate, and start testing. These are fruits...or...weeds. Test, taste, them. But...don't dilly dally, we have only a handful of decades in this material realm to figure it out. Btw, nice article, Loz.
Norton Polakis
another what if