Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain

For the first time, researchers have switched off consciousness by electrically stimulating a single brain area.

The woman has epilepsy so the team were using deep brain electrodes to record signals from different brain regions to work out where her seizures originate. One electrode was positioned next to the claustrum, an area that had never been stimulated before.

When the team zapped the area with high frequency electrical impulses, the woman lost consciousness. She stopped reading and stared blankly into space, she didn't respond to auditory or visual commands and her breathing slowed. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness with no memory of the event.

To confirm that they were affecting the woman's consciousness rather than just her ability to speak or move, the team asked her to repeat the word "house" or snap her fingers before the stimulation began. If the stimulation was disrupting a brain region responsible for movement or language she would have stopped moving or talking almost immediately. Instead, she gradually spoke more quietly or moved less and less until she drifted into unconsciousness. [...]

Anil Seth, who studies consciousness at the University of Sussex, UK, warns that we have to be cautious when interpreting behaviour from a single case study. The woman was missing part of her hippocampus, which was removed to treat her epilepsy, so she doesn't represent a "normal" brain, he says.

However, he points out that the interesting thing about this study is that the person was still awake. "Normally when we look at conscious states we are looking at awake versus sleep, or coma versus vegetative state, or anaesthesia." Most of these involve changes of wakefulness as well as consciousness but not this time, says Seth. "So even though it's a single case study, it's potentially quite informative about what's happening when you selectively modulate consciousness alone."

Previously, previously, previously.


10 Responses:

  1. Weaponization in 3...2...

  2. Greg says:

    Link to actual study plz? Cannot be found in the article itself.

      • Greg says:

        Is this behind a paywall or something? Because I did see that link and did try visiting it.

        I get:

        Article not found
        An article was not found at the web address (URL) provided. If you have typed in a URL directly into your browser's address bar, please check your entry for errors. If you have arrived on this page as a result of a bad link, you can try searching for the article on the Advanced Search page or by browsing this journal's issues.

        • Steve Smoot says:

          You need to not include the . in the link

        • nooj says:

          I had to log in to download it. So I assume it's paywalled. The redirection-to-an-abstract thing seems to indicate the same.

          Try again after a few months (6-12). These things sometimes become available after a certain time (often 3 or 6 months), or by being posted on an author's website, or whatever. I don't see that public funds were used to perform the study; it may never become free.

          The corresponding author is Mohamad Z. Koubeissi of Geroge Washington University. He may be interested in discussing the contents with you.

  3. Scott Louis says:

    Will I dream?