Unconsciousness Switch: Turning Off The Brain May Be As Simple As Flicking A Switch

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Scientists delving deep inside the human mind may have found a switch that can literally turn us off.

It's the first time, according to New Scientist, researchers have been able to flick consciousness off and on by stimulating a single brain area. That area, called the claustrum, could be the long-elusive cradle of human consciousness.

The study, published in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior this week, recounts how scientists at George Washington University succeeded in turning off and on a woman's consciousness by electrically stimulating that thin layer of the brain.

In the study abstract, the research team describes how zapping the claustrum resulted in "arrest of volitional behavior, unresponsiveness, and amnesia without negative motor symptoms or mere aphasia."

As described in Liberty Voice, "the woman would stare blankly into the distance, completely unresponsive to anyone’s audio or verbal commands. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she would regain consciousness and admitted having no recollection of what happened."

The study represents the first time the claustrum has ever been stimulated by a human being before.

"I would liken it to a car," neurologist Mohamad Koubeissi told UPI Science News. "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."

If so, that key resides in the claustrum and its oddly shaped layer of neurons.

Clamped to the underbelly, so to speak, of the neocortex (essentially in the very centre of the brain), the claustrum has long been considered enigmatic to say the least.

And, while the 'switch' has only been flicked in one human brain — reportedly, not even a normal human brain, as this woman was missing part of her hippocampus, which was removed to treat her epilepsy — the discovery does represent real progress in a question that has long-bedeviled science.

Namely, "how a kilogram or so of nerve cells conjures up the seamless kaleidoscope of sensations, thoughts, memories and emotions that occupy every waking moment."

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