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Tiny area of brain may be 'engine of consciousness', scientists suggest

A recent study on monkeys found that stimulating a certain part of the forebrain wakes monkeys from anesthesia.

Jon Olav Eikenes via Flickr
  • Scientists electrically stimulated the brains of macaque monkeys in an effort to determine which areas are responsible for driving consciousness.
  • The monkeys were anesthetized, and the goal was to see whether activating certain parts of the brain would wake up the animals.
  • The forebrain's central lateral thalamus seems to be one of the "minimum mechanisms" necessary for consciousness.


New research suggests a tiny part of the brain plays a key role in enabling consciousness. The findings might someday be used to bring people out of comas, treat consciousness disorders or ensure patients stay anesthetized during intensive procedures.

Past research has suggested that certain brain areas, like the parietal cortex and thalamus, are critical to consciousness. In the new study, published Wednesday in Neuron, a team of scientists used electrodes to stimulate various parts of the brains of two macaque monkeys. Macaque brains closely mirror human brains, making them an ideal model for studying the drivers of consciousness.

The team electrically stimulated the monkeys' brains as the animals were awake, asleep, and anesthetized. But unlike past research, they recorded activity from multiple brain areas simultaneously in an effort to pinpoint which parts are driving consciousness.

"We decided to go beyond the classical approach of recording from one area at a time," senior author Yuri Saalmann, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told Cell Press. "We recorded from multiple areas at the same time to see how the entire network behaves."

The goal was to identify the "minimum mechanisms" necessary to produce consciousness. To do that, the researchers tested whether stimulating certain parts of the brain would cause the monkeys to wake up from the anesthesia. The electrodes were specially designed to mimic the kind of brain activity that monkeys show during a wakeful state.

"This allowed us to directly manipulate consciousness and record changes in communication and information flow with a very high degree of spatial and temporal specificity," study co-author Michelle Redinbaugh, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told Inverse.

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When the team electrically stimulated a part of the brain called the central lateral thalamus, located in the forebrain, the monkeys woke up: they opened their eyes, blinked, reached out, made facial expressions and showed altered vital signs.

"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," Saalmann told Cell Press. "They acted just as they would if they were awake. When we switched off the stimulation, the animals went straight back to being unconscious."

This area of the brain may function as an "engine for consciousness," Redinbaugh told Inverse. Although past studies have shown that electrical stimulation can arouse the brains of humans and animals, the new findings are unique because they reveal which specific neural interactions appear to be minimally necessary for consciousness.

"Science doesn't often leave opportunity for exhilaration, but that's what that moment was like for those of us who were in the room," Redinbaugh told Inverse.

Future applications

The team said the findings could have many applications down the road, but more research is needed.

"The overriding motivation of this research is to help people with disorders of consciousness to live better lives," Redinbaugh told Cell Press. "We have to start by understanding the minimum mechanism that is necessary or sufficient for consciousness, so that the correct part of the brain can be targeted clinically."

"It's possible we may be able to use these kinds of deep-brain stimulating electrodes to bring people out of comas. Our findings may also be useful for developing new ways to monitor patients under clinical anesthesia, to make sure they are safely unconscious."

Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?

According to the Great Filter theory, Earth might be one of the only planets with intelligent life. And that's a good thing (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]).
Surprising Science

Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.

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The key to better quality education? Make students feel valued.

Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.

Future of Learning
  • Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
  • One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
  • "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
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Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
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Personal Growth

Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

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