Neuroscientists Discover an Ignition Switch for Consciousness

Researchers at George Washington University have identified a part of the brain that, when stimulated with an electric impulse, disrupts consciousness.

What's the Latest?


When Francis Crick, the English scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA, died in 2004, he and a colleague were in the midst of researching the potential existence of an on-off switch for consciousness located somewhere deep within the brain. Crick's hypothesis likened the proposed switch to an orchestra conductor "to bind all of our different external and internal perceptions together." Researchers at George Washington University in Washington DC believe they may have found Crick's conductor. As it happens, it's located in the exact part of the brain Crick had initially guessed: the claustrum.

What's the Big Idea?

Helen Thomson of New Scientist describes the claustrum as "a thin, sheet-like structure that lies hidden deep inside the brain." The scientists at George Washington were treating an epileptic patient with high frequency electric impulses via electrodes placed in her brain. They found that when the electrode placed next to the claustrum was activated, the woman temporarily lost consciousness. When the electrode was turned off and the claustrum was no longer being stimulated, the woman reverted back to consciousness having no memory of what had just occurred. Dr. Mohamad Koubessi, the lead author on the newly published study detailing the event, identifies that this is only the beginning of research on the claustrum as conductor/disruptor of consciousness.

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