At least two meanings can be applied to the word “consciousness” when we’re talking about the brain. The first has to do with why the lights are on in our heads — why we’re awake to the world. The second is a bit more metaphorical, and has to do with our capacity to mentally grasp that which is both inside and outside our heads — our ability to look within and look without as if from a central locus point in our brains that ties all of our otherwise sprawling and immense neuronal activity together.
In both cases, the core issue comes down to wiring–and it’s been an issue mired in controversy ever since neuroscientific research became nuanced enough to start investigating the questions. Now a new study from researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem claims to have located the central wiring system responsible for consciousness in rats’ brains. If the finding is eventually shown to be applicable to the human brain as well, we may be on the cusp of a major advance in understanding why the dense amalgham in our skulls is conscious at all.
In a statement released today, head of the research team, Professor Marshall Devor, said his team had found a “a radically different architecture” for brain consciousness than previously thought. “A small group of neurons near the base of the brain … has executive control over the alert status of the entire cerebrum and spinal cord, and can generate loss of pain sensation, postural collapse and loss of consciousness through specific neural circuitry,” said the statement.
The team reached this conclusion from the observation that microinjection of tiny quantities of certain anesthetic drugs into the newly discovered “center of consciousness” in laboratory rats induced a profound suppressive effect on the activity of the cerebral cortex.
If the study findings turn out to be accurate for humans, implications for treatment of consciousness loss (such as for coma patients) could be major. Beyond that, the wiring map of the human brain would finally have a crucial nexus point, and the theoretical “seat of consciousness” may actually be proven to exist in a nuts and bolts way, rather than merely as a topic of philosophical debate.