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Biotech Science

Consciousness On-Off Switch Discovered Deep In Brain 284

Posted by samzenpus
from the green-light-red-light dept.
An anonymous reader writes "One moment you're conscious, the next you're not. For the first time, researchers have switched off consciousness by electrically stimulating a single brain area. Although only tested in one person, the discovery suggests that a single area – the claustrum – might be integral to combining disparate brain activity into a seamless package of thoughts, sensations and emotions. It takes us a step closer to answering a problem that has confounded scientists and philosophers for millennia – namely how our conscious awareness arises. 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.
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Consciousness On-Off Switch Discovered Deep In Brain

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  • Wow! (Score:5, Funny)

    by rotorbudd (1242864) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @04:18PM (#47394821)

    That sounds like the experiments that my wife has been doin

  • Brain ZAP! (Score:4, Funny)

    by karnal (22275) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @04:19PM (#47394827)

    Citizen, you will be implanted with this brain massager free of charge. Please do not attempt to remove this device. That is all.

    • by Nefarious Wheel (628136) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @04:57PM (#47395033) Journal

      Hee hee! Oh I like that. Press the button again. Wait until he's chewing that spoonful. Now, replace the ice cream with castor oil. Let me press it! Let me press it!

    • The problem with dystopian theories like this is bullets are cheap. If you've subjugated the public to the point that you can force expensive brain surgery on them, why bother? Just shoot the people you don't like.

      Besides, there's a huge market for non-lethal weapons; if this works on everyone and incapacitates rapidly, government labs and defense contractors will be tripping over themselves to reproduce this effect through external stimulus. No surgery necessary. Woo...

      ...and, of course, the end result is

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Dead people leave long tails of hatred. Chronically ill or crazy people leave long tails of sadness and dependency.

      • Shooting everyone makes a lot of waste to dispose of.

        That's where Soylent Green comes in...

      • by manwargi (1361031)

        The problem with dystopian theories like this is bullets are cheap. If you've subjugated the public to the point that you can force expensive brain surgery on them, why bother? Just shoot the people you don't like.

        As technology gets better and better, especially at the rapid rate that it grows, exploiting this discovery may not always be that much more expensive.

    • On the subject of intrusive government applications, I wonder if it would make prisons more or less humane. No revolts, no issues with control, no angst. Just hook people off of the thing for about three hours a day for feeding and exercising. Can someone sleep while uncounscious like that? (it sounds like a dumb question)

      • by mpeskett (1221084)
        If you spent most of your prison sentence unconscious, it would make any attempt at either punishment or rehabilitation impossible. Would still satisfy the "removing you from society" goal, and would still offer some deterrence (maybe not as much if prison was now closer to a null experience than an actively unpleasant one), but still... seems like defeating a large part of the point of imprisoning people
        • by ewibble (1655195)

          I think rehabilitation part of prison is a joke, you are much more likely to become indoctrinated than rehabilitated. So that leaves punishment, you could consider having X years of your life taken of you as a punishment, it doesn't stop you aging.

          This is a very scary concept, you could imprison anyone, take away there power argue, and still "feel good" about yourself because you didn't kill anyone.

           

        • Re:Brain ZAP! (Score:4, Interesting)

          by DarkOx (621550) on Monday July 07, 2014 @08:15AM (#47398425) Journal

          The punishment would still be the fact that your are deprived of years of your life. I think it would still suck pretty hard to essentially wake up one morning and find yourself 10 years older.

  • but... (Score:5, Funny)

    by meglon (1001833) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @04:21PM (#47394841)
    ...did it also coincide with the TV being turned on?
  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @04:28PM (#47394869)

    So we have a bunch of male scientists who apparently didn't know about rufies.

  • by clovis (4684)

    so, any idea how long your brain just went off?

  • by invictusvoyd (3546069) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @04:34PM (#47394899)
    But needs deep brain electodes so I guess it wont be easy to pull off .. But with advances in implant devices , zzz (shivers )
    • If it can be employed in surgery (putting aside the current implant requirement) it would be a surgical boon (might not be so good for anesthesiologists ;>)

      • Yeah, but the surgery is (usually) gonna hurt like blazes the instant the signal is stopped!

        • by BitZtream (692029)

          Your head has very few pain receptors in it, neural surgery is pretty much painless after you get into the skull even with no anastasia at all, hence why they can probe the brain while you are full conscious and aware.

          So, no, it isn't going to hurt like blazes.

        • by bondsbw (888959)

          I was under the impression that anesthesia doesn't work like a painkiller. It only reduces consciousness. The patient receives painkillers prior to the anesthesia wearing off in order to manage pain after becoming conscious. Since this would only take place of anesthesia, it would still be reasonable to provide painkillers before waking the patient up.

    • Re:This is scary (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdo ... org minus author> on Sunday July 06, 2014 @04:50PM (#47394983)

      If you want to knock people unconscious, there are already less invasive ways of doing it, like general anesthesia. Though it would be interesting to know whether general anesthesia operates by a mechanism related to this one, or is doing something else.

      • Re:This is scary (Score:4, Interesting)

        by FatdogHaiku (978357) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @05:07PM (#47395099)

        If you want to knock people unconscious, there are already less invasive ways of doing it, like general anesthesia. Though it would be interesting to know whether general anesthesia operates by a mechanism related to this one, or is doing something else.

        They have no idea... http://www.surgeryencyclopedia.com/A-Ce/Anesthesia-General.html [surgeryencyclopedia.com]
        Having had anesthesia many times I think it is worse than most procedures. I feel fuzzy for months after GA. Still it's about the only game in town if someone is going to be carving on a person for medical reasons.

        • look into the research from Walter Reed hospital - only part of the brain is asleep. The rest of the brain experiences everything and really screws a lot of people up. Always get general plus spinal.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        General anathesia is actually quite dangerous. This could potentially make surgery a lot safer.

      • Re:This is scary (Score:5, Informative)

        by FuzzNugget (2840687) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @09:25PM (#47396415)

        General anesthetic is actually a lot more crude than most people think. It's essentially a short-term induced coma, that's why they need to jam a breathing tube down your throat and it feels like you just gave Satan a blowjob when they bring you out.

        This sounds like the first baby steps towards developing a drug-free method of dropping patients out of consciousness, maybe even with little to no side effects.

        • by danomac (1032160)

          This sounds like the first baby steps towards developing a drug-free method of dropping patients out of consciousness, maybe even with little to no side effects.

          Well, except for that hole in your head...

    • by Livius (318358) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @05:00PM (#47395053)

      Forget implant devices. With enough mental training, Vulcans can stimulate this part of the humanoid brain just by pinching someone on the neck.

      (Luckily, humanoids have very similar physiology in their nervous systems.)

  • Consciousness (Score:2, Flamebait)

    by ThePeices (635180)

    Wow, if we discover the exact region and mechanism for how consciousness emerges from brain activity, then this, in my mind, is the final nail in the coffin of the Soul Hypothesis ( the religious explanation for consciousness being external to the brain, and as something that survives death ).

    Of course, the religionists will carp on about how this study is all a big conspiracy with science finding or some other claptrap, but for the rest of us, this could be a major discovery!

    • by Livius (318358)

      The soul is information. It doesn't have a physical location.

      • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

        by BasilBrush (643681)

        So where's the information stored?

        • by turp182 (1020263)

          How about this?

          The soul of an individual is composed of the direct and indirect memories people have of one, while living and after death.

          Most people's souls last two to three generations, and then we are just geat-great-grand-father Jason with no stories (I don't even know the names of my family that far back), forgotten other than by name, if lucky.

          Some people's souls live forever, those enshrined in history, such as Abraham Lincoln.

          That's how I see things.

          I'm around to have fun and provide for my family.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Um, no it doesn't. It simply proves that consciousness can be externally shut off.

      I'm not going to go into actual religious discussion, save to say that this would have little if any impact on religion at all.

      It might be a good thing to actually learn about what it is you're trying to get rid of before you start commenting on it.

    • by Sabriel (134364)

      Why do you believe that consciousness must not emerge from brain activity for there to be a "soul"?
      Why do you believe that there must be a religious explanation for a "soul"?

      Whether or not there actually is a "soul", your provided definition of it doesn't require either of those to be true.

      And it would be no less a major discovery if we found that we did have souls. Or that only some of us did. Or that we only got them at a certain age. Or only under certain conditions. Or that we could create them. Or dest

    • by ichthus (72442)
      New "religionist" theory: the claustrum is the interface of the brain to the soul.
    • Wow, if we discover the exact region and mechanism for how consciousness emerges from brain activity, then this, in my mind, is the final nail in the coffin of the Soul Hypothesis ( the religious explanation for consciousness being external to the brain, and as something that survives death ).

      Feel free to believe whatever. Start with an unfounded assertion "there is no soul" and then use unrelated discoveries in a circular logic to justify your belief to yourself.

      Of course, the religionists will carp on about how this study is all a big conspiracy with science finding or some other claptrap, but for the rest of us, this could be a major discovery!

      You don't speak for the rest of us, if indeed, there is a class of people ("religionists") and another class ("the rest of us").

    • Wow, if we discover the exact region and mechanism for how consciousness emerges from brain activity, then this, in my mind, is the final nail in the coffin of the Soul Hypothesis ( the religious explanation for consciousness being external to the brain, and as something that survives death ).

      Of course, the religionists will carp on about how this study is all a big conspiracy with science finding or some other claptrap, but for the rest of us, this could be a major discovery!

      And after you convince them that they were wrong about souls, you can then easily convince them that insectivores, Prosimians, and Marsupials* all have souls/whatever makes us human as well.

      *wiki says: "The claustrum has a phylogenetic background appearing predominantly in insectivores, Prosimians, and Marsupials."

      • by fyngyrz (762201)

        The claustrum has a phylogenetic background appearing predominantly in insectivores, Prosimians, and Marsupials.

        Hmmm. A hint as to where to look for consciousness most similar to humans?

        • Hmmm. A hint as to where to look for consciousness most similar to humans?

          Nope! Only humans have Human(TM) Consciousness. You wouldn't want to weaken the rights we give ourselves by pointing to creatures that have similar traits, now would you?

    • by richlv (778496)

      right. because logic and facts made all religions obsolete long time ago.

    • by Salgat (1098063)
      I wasn't aware of the soul as being defined by that, at least for Christians/Jews the Bible barely makes any mention of its properties. Considering the "soul" is metaphysical, the explanation can be simply explained away as a supernatural copy of our state of mind that is restored after death in a new supernatural body. Who knows though, I sure as hell don't know anything about souls and to discuss it is pure guessing.
  • I particularly liked the manner in which the writer jumped from something as complex as the human brain developing consciousness to wondering if robots have the same function. He should be lobotomized.
  • by dhj (110274) * on Sunday July 06, 2014 @04:53PM (#47395005)

    From TFA:

    Anil Seth, who studies consciousness at the University of Sussex, UK, warns that we have to be cautious when interpreting behaviour from a single case study. The woman was missing part of her hippocampus, which was removed to treat her epilepsy, so she doesn't represent a "normal" brain, he says.

    Normally a scientist will not ethically be able to put deep brain electrodes in a person, but this was likely part of a larger experiment related to the hippocampus surgery. It will be interesting to see if similar cases present similar behaviors and more interesting if the same thing happens in someone with a full hippocampus.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 06, 2014 @05:36PM (#47395247)

      The original article seems to be conspicuously missing. Here is the pubmed reference (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24967698), but the link there is broken too and even browsing through the journal's archive doesn't bring up any reference to the article. Hopefully that gets fixed very soon.
      Also, back when I was PhD student in neuroscience Crick and Koch's idea that the claustrum was the seat of consciousness was one of my class's favorite jokes- if it turns out they were actually right I'm gonna be so f-ing mad.

  • by digitalhermit (113459) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @04:56PM (#47395021) Homepage

    I have been experimenting with this technique since the early 80s. It is possible to stimulate the claustrum via pressure along the sternocleidomastoid. By pinching this area it causes sympathetic nerve activity that can effective render someone unconscious. My colleague has perfected the technique to the point that he uses it at parties. Quite eerie, actually.

    Peace. Stay healthy and have a long life..

  • Neuralizers! Men in Black is the new Star Trek.
  • They zapped a part of her brain that had the effect of stopping conscious thought. I suppose that meets the definition, but it sounds more like they overwhelmed her normal brain function rather than shut it off.
    • by countach (534280)

      That's an interesting interpretation of what happened.

      I was also wondering why they said she was unconscious but not asleep. What is the technical difference that allows them to make this distinction?

      • by fyngyrz (762201)

        eyes open, unresponsive to stimuli (can't be woken up), no memory of entering the state

  • Imagine what could happen if it were conveniently located on your back!
  • by jaeztheangel (2644535) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @06:03PM (#47395387)
    The Claustrum as an area of the brain has been well established as an area of orchestration of various sensory subsystems. It has been studied for over two centuries[1].

    These studies clearly demonstrate that the Cl is richly innervated with a wide and diverse array of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators. Lesion, stimulation and recording experiments demonstrate that the functional and physiologic capacity of the Cl is quite robust. A recurring theme of claustral function appears to be its involvement in sensorimotor integration. This may be expected of the Cl, given the degree of heterotopic, heterosensory convergence and its interconnectivity with the key subcortical nuclei and sensory cortical areas. The Cl remains a poorly understood and under investigated nucleus.

    It makes sense that a major loss of function is associated with interrupting the Claustrum - but there are several nuclii in the brain - the Hippocampus being one. Claiming it is the 'one true center of consciousness' in the brain doesn't account for the countless studies which reveal just how complex the operation of our neural networks actually are, and may be premature.

    References

    1. [1]The claustrum: a historical review of its anatomy, physiology, cytochemistry and functional significance. Edelstein LR1, Denaro FJ. [nih.gov]

  • I'm pretty sure I've seen devices like this in science fiction shows. Though absent a very high quality auto-targetting, I can't see the real one having any use against an unwilling subject. I wonder if it also causes short-term memory loss?

  • by dreamchaser (49529) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @07:37PM (#47395823) Homepage Journal

    This is a non-story. One subject? Really? Let's seen an actual study with multiple subjects and some deeper analysis into what might be going on. As it stands this is a non-story.

  • or should we say, Zap Brainnigan?

  • Having seen someone faint at the sight of blood (the lights went out instantaneously and they hit the floor like a sack of potatoes) this woman's experience doesn't quite match what I saw. The woman seemed still to have muscle tone to remain sitting upright. So this suspension of some sort of executive control/awareness/conscious experience needs a different name.

    The NewScientist article said "To confirm that they were affecting the woman's consciousness rather than just her ability to speak or move, the te

  • Where does the soul end and where does the funk begin?
  • by aaronb1138 (2035478) on Sunday July 06, 2014 @10:18PM (#47396769)
    Girl: Did I fall asleep?

    Doctor: For a little while.

    Girl: Shall I go now.

    Doctor: If you like.
  • Turns out that a lot of people, if you hit them on the point of their chin they lose consciousness. Most will lose consciousness with a simple tap to the temple. Seems like an easier off-switch to me.

  • by Greyfox (87712)
    It turns out that self-awareness is an illusion of a couple of smallish blobs in your brain, without which you would be no smarter than the average computer? Seems like it ought not to be terribly difficult to make a computer think it's self aware too, then.
  • Perhaps they could use this information to try an investigation of how anesthetics work with a narrower scope, giving them a chance for a better understanding of what goes on with those drugs and the ability to make future anesthesia less dangerous.
  • Is responsible for creating consciousness INSIDE claustrum?

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