SCIENCE
07/08/2014 12:05 am ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

The Human Brain Has An On-Off Switch For Consciousness, Scientists Say

Turning off the mind could be as easy as flicking a switch.

That's what doctors at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., inadvertently discovered while evaluating a 54-year-old woman with epilepsy. The researchers realized that by using electrodes to deliver tiny jolts of electricity to a particular region of the woman's brain, they could control her consciousness almost as if they had an on-off switch.

While neurologists have in the past used electrodes to evaluate the function of various brain regions, this was the first time such a reaction had been observed.

Dr. Mohamad Koubeissi and his team observed the phenomenon while mapping electrodes implanted in the woman's brain as part of an attempt to determine the origin of her seizures. They activated the electrodes one by one, sending a pulse of electricity to various brain areas. When they stimulated a sheet-like area of neurons called the claustrum, Koubeissi noticed something odd: rather than responding to commands, the woman was just staring blankly into space.

"The patient had a complete arrest of volitional behavior," Koubeissi told The Huffington Post, adding that when they stopped stimulating the region, "she had absolutely no idea what had happened."

To confirm that the patient had indeed lost consciousness rather than just temporarily losing her ability to talk and move, the team asked the patient to repeat a word and snap her fingers before the stimulation began. Each time the electrode was turned on, the team observed the same result -- the woman slowly lost consciousness and became unable to recall what had just happened.

"Whatever we stimulated is a key component in the networks that constitute consciousness," Koubeissi told HuffPost Science.

Koubeissi said he'd like to do more research on this brain region but acknowledged that that's difficult to do because implanting electrodes into the brain solely for the purpose of research is out of the question unless a specific clinical trial has been approved.

Koubeissi said he hoped to do similar studies on other patients with epilepsy who have electrodes implanted near the claustrum. In the meantime, he's using the knowledge he's gained from the case study to investigate whether stimulation of the claustrum, or a neighboring region, reduces seizures in animals.

The research was published online and is scheduled for publication in the August 2014 issue of Epilepsy & Behavior.

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