An "On-Off" Consciousness Switch In The Brain? George Washington University Thinks It Found One

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: Wellcome trust employee Zoe Middleton poses behind an artwork entitled 'My Soul' by Katharine Dowson, which consists of a laser etched lead chrystal glass formation in the shape of a brain, and was created using the artists own MRI Scan, at Wellcome Collection on March 27, 2012 in London, England. The exhibit makes up part of the Wellcome Collection's major new exhibition, 'Brains' which includes slices of Einstein's brain, 3000 year old trepanned skulls, ancient Egyptian mummified brains and brains in jars, and opens to the public from March 29 June 17, 2012. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Source: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

For the first time in history, scientists have found an "on-off" switch in the brain that can bring individuals in and out of consciousness. In a study published by George Washington University, Mohamad Koubeissi and his colleagues managed to switch a female epilepsy patients' consciousness on and off by stimulating her claustrum — a thin sheet of neurons that lie deep inside of the central brain. In doing so, the scientists discovered that the patient had lost consciousness as her breathing began to slow down and she stared into space. 

Continuing the experiment, the researchers stopped the stimulation of the claustrum — and, you guessed it, the patient regained consciousness, completely unaware of what had just occurred to her. 

This discovery was actually accidental — the researchers were actually in the midst of clinical trials for seizures. They were using deep brain electrodes to monitor brain signals in an attempt to pinpoint the area of a brain that was causing seizures for the epileptic patient.

To confirm that these results were in fact reliable, the experiment was tried over and over again over the course of two days. The conclusions made confirmed that the reaction was not a side effect of a seizure.

Speaking to New Scientist, Koubessi compared his findings to... a car.

A car on the road has many parts that facilitate its movement…but there’s only one spot where you turn the key and it all switches on and works together. So while consciousness is a complicated process created via many structures and networks — we may have found the key.
Pretty neat, right?
Before we get too excited, let's slow down for a second. After all, the experiment has only been tested on this one patient. And note that she had already had part of her hippocampus (the part of the brain that is responsible for memory) removed to treat her epilepsy. Theoretically, the patient could had atypical results.

Still, the idea of an on-off switch in ones brain is fascinating. If this experiment is tested on additional patients (and it most certainly should be), it could do wonders for epileptics, insomniacs, and even inform us about anesthesia and comas.

Ha, and there was a day when we thought a touch-screen phone was a crazy advancement.


Must Reads