Have you ever wondered how the human consciousness works? Does it have an on and off button? Sometimes, we’d wish for this to be reality so that we can stop the thoughts from driving us crazy, right? Well, neuroscientists have recently discovered that there might actually be something of a switch that governs the consciousness of a person.
The experts stumbled across this discovery unexpectedly. It was during a delicate brain surgery over a female epilepsy patient that they found the switch to consciousness. The researchers were trying to find out as to which area of the brain would trigger the seizures characteristic of epilepsy. They made use of deep brain electrodes to capture signals that were sent out by the different areas of the woman’s brain. During the process, they had stimulated a certain region of the brain of the patient, called the claustrum, only to discover that she temporarily lost consciousness.
The claustrum had never been stimulated before, hence why this has remained unknown until now. When the woman was switched off so to say, she stared blankly not giving any response to the questions of the surgeons – it was as if her senses of sight and hearing were clogged. Furthermore, she began breathing at a slower rate. Then, the stimulation of the claustrum was cut off, and she became awake again, conscious of the happenings around her. But, she did not hold any memory of the lapse of time when she had gone unconscious.
On observing this phenomenon, the team of experts went further experimenting on this region of the brain, each time having the same results. However, they had to test whether it really was a case of consciousness being switched off, or just an inability to use the limbs to respond to the instructions of the surgeons. Therefore, they made her move her fingers before they stimulated the claustrum. Then, as they began stimulating that area of the brain, the movements of the woman slowed down till she lost consciousness, showing that they were indeed playing with a consciousness switch!
These results show that the claustrum has a crucial role in maintaining human consciousness. But, the woman’s brain is unlike the normal human one. As part of the treatment she was undergoing to relieve her of the epileptic fits, s region of her hippocampus was removed. Could it be that this made the whole difference? The team is, however, positive that this shed light on some aspects of consciousness, irrespective of the state of the woman’s brain.