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The Claustrum - The Brain's On Off Switch?

Most modern theories about the brain agree that consciousness is an integration of activity from brain networks, resulting in our experience of one unified reality.

In a study published last week, Mohamad Koubeissi at the George Washington University in Washington DC and his colleagues describe how they managed to switch a woman's consciousness off and on by stimulating her claustrum. The woman has epilepsy so the team were using deep brain electrodes to record signals from different brain regions to work out where her seizures originate. One electrode was positioned next to the claustrum, an area that had never been stimulated before.

[ The claustrum is a thin, irregular, sheet of neurons that is attached to the underside of the neocortex in the center of the brain. It is suspected to be present in the brains of all mammals. ]

When the team zapped the area with high frequency electrical impulses, the woman lost consciousness. She stopped reading and stared blankly into space, she didn't respond to auditory or visual commands and her breathing slowed. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness with no memory of the event. The same thing happened every time the area was stimulated during two days of experiments

John Brunner's fans may recall the data-retrieval mode used to access the memories of Nickie Haflinger in Brunner's 1975 masterpiece The Shockwave Rider. In the story, the subject could be "turned on" or "turned off" using this method.

The man in the bare steel chair was as naked as the room's white walls... Tiny adhesive pads held sensors in position at a dozen places on his scalp...

From each sensor a lead, fine as gossamer, ran to the... data analysis console...

Not looking up, the girl in white plastic said, "Yes, sir, he's status go."

She headed for the door. Taking a seat at Freeman's invitation, Hartz said doubtfully, "Don't you have to give him a shot or something? He looks pretty thoroughly sedated."

Settling comfortably in his own chair adjacent to the data console, Freeman said, "No, it's not a question of drugs. It's done with induced current in the motor centers. One of our specialties, you know. All I have to do is move this switch and he'll recover consciousness - though not, of course, the power of ambulation. Just enough to let him answer in adequate detail. By the way, before I turn him on, I should fill in what's happening..."

Via New Scientist.

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