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In a path-breaking discovery, researchers have found out which portion of the brain controls when you’re conscious and when you’re not. The great discovery has been made by chance while studying an epileptic patient-and used electronic brain stimulation to flip the switch on and off.
Researchers at George Washington University were using deep brain electrodes to monitor brain signals and try to pinpoint the area of a patient’s brain that was causing her seizures. One of the electrodes was placed on the claustrum, a thin sheet of neurons running between major structures of the brain-and a region that’s never been studied with deep brain electrodes before.
Unexpectedly, when the researchers sent high frequency electrical signals to the claustrum, the patient lost consciousness: unlike a seizure, where a person’s activity immediately stops, the patient seemed to “slow down,” speaking more quietly and moving more slowly until she was silent and still, unresponsive to voice or visual stimulation. She was, by definition, unconscious, regaining full consciousness with no memory of the event as soon as the electrical stimulation was turned off.
The discovery has huge potential implications for patients with epilepsy or in semi-conscious states. Ultimately, if we know how consciousness is created and which parts of the brain are involved then we can understand who has it and who doesn’t. Maybe someday, we’ll fall asleep by flipping the OFF switch located deep within our brains.