Consciousness, and its very nature, has long mystified both scientists and philosophers. Researchers believe they have located the on/off switch in the human brain, for the first time in history. By stimulating one region of the brain, the claustrum, they were able to switch consciousness on and off in patients.
An accidental discovery, this effect was uncovered during investigations into seizures. A 54-year-old woman fell into unconsciousness when a small electrical impulse was applied to the tiny, sheet-like claustrum. The patient exhibited no response to external stimuli during the time she was unconscious, and her breathing slowed significantly.
She awoke following the incident, without any memory of the event, after the current was turned off. The experiment was run several times over the next two days, with identical results - the region acted like an on-off switch for awareness.
Mohamad Koubeissi of George Washington University led the study that uncovered the surprising results. The experiment was originally designed to test low-frequency waves, deep within the brain, as a possible treatment for epilepsy. This was successful, and reduced the number of seizures in patients by up to 92 percent, with no substantial loss of memory. As part of the experiment, researchers tried high-frequency stimulation. This was when they discovered the on/off effect.
Philosophers in ancient Greece and through the Renaissance wrote and spoke on the nature of consciousness. These included the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes and John Locke, who helped fuel the ideas of the American Revolution.
Today, most researchers believe several areas of the brain act together in concert to bring about consciousness. Just days before his death, DNA pioneer Francis Crick was working on a paper into the nature of consciousness. In it, he wrote of a need for a guiding "conductor" for the concert of awareness, merging all the information pouring in from senses and thoughts. If this study is borne out by other trials, the claustrum could be shown to play the role of that director. It could also be responsible for association - a person eating a certain food while listening to a song, can sometimes taste it once more on hearing the same music. This new discovery could explain the mechanism behind that phenomenon.
Investigation of how electrical impulses could be used to trigger consciousness could lead to revolutionary treatments for coma patients.
This discovery was recorded in just a single patient, and further research on additional subjects will need to take place before confirmation of the nature of the claustrum can be confirmed.
The accidental discovery and the implications of what it can tell us about the nature of consciousness were detailed in the online journal Science Direct.