Scientists Discover Brain's 'Off Switch' For Consciousness

Researchers have accidentally discovered a mechanism deep within the brain that controls consciousness, acting as a kind of "off switch" for our awareness.

While performing deep brain surgery on a patient, neurologists from George Washington University stimulated a part of the woman's brain that had an unexpected effect, io9 relates. The electrical stimulation caused the patient to lose awareness of her surroundings, a feat that researchers say was reproducible in a paper on their findings. "We describe a region in the human brain where electrical stimulation reproducibly disrupted consciousness," researchers wrote, adding that the findings are important due to the fact that the "neural mechanisms that underlie consciousness are not fully understood."

Indeed, consciousness is still largely a mystery to science. The mechanisms within the brain that give rise to it, or turn it on and off, have rarely been documented before. Interestingly, as The Inquisitr has previously reported, researchers have found in the past that during near-death moments, "many known electrical signatures of consciousness exceeded levels found in the waking state."

The mechanisms behind consciousness are still largely a mystery to scientists
The mechanisms that govern consciousness have long been a mystery to science.

The study, which was published this week in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior, describes how Mohamad Koubeissi and his team were operating on the brain of a patient with epileptic seizures, in an effort to determine where they originated from. Using electrodes implanted deep within the brain, the team recorded signals from different areas of the brain to pinpoint the origin of the seizures. One electrode was placed near a structure called the claustrum, which sits in the center of the brain and is thought to act as a synchronizing mechanism for the two disparate hemispheres.

When the patient's claustrum was stimulated, she lost consciousness, according to New Scientist. The same result was observed every time the area was stimulated over several days of experiments. The patient, who was asked to read by researchers, would gradually stop doing so, stare blankly into space, and become unresponsive to audio and visual stimuli. When researchers stopped stimulating that area of her brain, the patient returned to full consciousness, "with no memory of the event." The team took steps to make sure that their results weren't a side effect of a seizure, and that the area of the brain they stimulated didn't in fact simply control motion or speech.

While researchers are excited about the possibilities for understanding consciousness that the study points to, they caution that the patient involved does not posses a normal brain. In an effort to treat her seizures, doctors previously removed a part of her hippocampus, a fact which may or may not have bearing on her neurologist's ability to stimulate her brain in and out of consciousness.

[Images via Elite Daily and Ions]