The Lights Are On But Nobody’s Home - Ah-ha! Week


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of A Health Blog.

Because you are reading the words on this page and reacting to them, you are conscious. You perceive sensory information and emotively respond to it, thus you are sentient. But what if you were asked how you are conscious, why you are sentient?

Now there’s the rub.

Even experts aren’t entirely sure what creates our experience of consciousness, primarily because it’s difficult to ethically ascertain evidence about human brain activity. However, it is known that our brains react to stimuli by lighting up with currents of electricity that are fired between little battery like cells called neurons. The complexity of these neural networks is what offers us humans the ability to process and sort an incredible amount of information at once.

For all that was already established, scientists were still unsure of how these electrical patterns could actually give rise to consciousness. The phenomenon remained a complete mystery until Dr. Mohamad Koubeisse and his team at George Washington University in Washington DC discovered a possible answer: a physical point in the brain that seems to instantly turn all consciousness off and on.

The discovery happened by accident. Originally, Koubeisse was working to determine whether a 54-year-old woman would benefit from surgical treatment for epilepsy by placing electrodes on her brain. By happenstance, he put one of the electrodes near a structure called the claustrum, a thin sheet of cells in the center of the brain. When it pulsed, Koubeisse observed a remarkable reaction.

“When we stimulated at a specific current intensity,” he recalls for BTR, “she had a blank stare on her face, she paused, and had complete arrest of volition of behavior. Afterwards, she had no recollection of what happened.”

Koubeisse points out that we are already able to deactivate certain sensations by stimulating specific parts of the brain, but to stimulate a tiny spot on the organ and disrupt all parts of cognition at the same time–that is unheard of.

The evidence supports the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness, which states that consciousness depends heavily on the interactions in the brain. The theory also says that when a being exhibits more integration, that means there is more sentience. Neuroscientist Dr. Christoph Koch predicted the claustrum might play a vital role in this integration, like the conductor of a grand symphony, and further evidence seems to prove him correct.

Now the challenge is recreating the experiment, which Koubeisse is afraid might prove difficult.

There’s no way to ethically gather human evidence for purely research purposes, he says, and current brain imaging technology like the fMRI doesn’t offer a high enough resolution to show the tiny claustrum in detail. Looking forth to potential research opportunities, he hopes that with the medical world alerted to his findings, someone at another center will notify him about an epilepsy patient who already experienced a similar phenomenon when an electrode stimulated their claustrum.

The therapeutic implications of Koubeisse’s discovery are exciting. Studying the claustrum could help us understand diseases that cause disruptions of thought, like schizophrenia. Because schizophrenia symptoms are so difficult to counteract, people who suffer from the disorder are at a substantially high risk of poverty, homelessness, and suicide. Treatment options are scant, apart from anti-psychotics, which often have debilitating side effects. An alternative therapy would be warmly welcomed.

“This could also have implications for epilepsy or deep coma patients,” Dr. Koubeisse says. “We’re currently doing some animal experiments at George Washington University to study that and to see if low frequency stimulation on the claustrum might have any effect for seizures and other similar disorders.”

Such potential scientific revelations about this tiny point of consciousness might entail substantial benefits for the medical world.

For more about the claustrum, turn into this week’s Third Eye Weekly with Matthew DeMello.