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On-off switch for consciousness discovered

Joe Chivers | Science Recorder | July 07, 2014

On-off switch for consciousness discovered

The research, led by the director of GWU’s Epilepsy Center, Mohammed Koubeissi, MD, is the first step towards understanding where in the brain consciousness originates from.

Researchers from George Washington University report that they have discovered the “on/off switch” for consciousness. The study, published in the journal Epilepsy and Behaviour, recounts an experiment performed on a 54-year-old epileptic woman. The scientists were electrically stimulating different areas of the brain using electrodes, hoping to discover where her seizures originated from. The scientists found that when one particular area of the brain, known as the claustrum, was stimulated, the woman lost consciousness. The woman could still speak and move at first, but these skills declined slowly, before she became unresponsive. This is the first time that unconsciousness has been shown to occur without the subject entering a deep sleep.

The research, led by the director of GWU’s Epilepsy Center, Mohammed Koubeissi, MD, is the first step towards understanding where in the brain consciousness originates from. The area in question, the claustrum, is a thin sheet of neurons attached to the neocortex, the largest part of the cerebral cortex. This is not the first time that the claustrum has been theorized to play a significant and unifying role in the working of the brain. Francis Crick, world-renowned for being part of the team to identify DNA’s structure in 1953, theorized that the claustrum worked as a kind of orchestra conductor for the brain, helping the various parts work in harmony.

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