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Did you know? Consciousness has ‘on-off switch’

Scientists have discovered a possible new method of turning a person’s consciousness on and off, which could open the door for new breakthroughs and developments in treating epilepsy.

A research team from George Washington University have uncovered a means of using deep brain stimulation in order to send a patient with epilepsy into deep unconsciousness, before bringing them back again using the same method.

The patient has an electrode implanted close to the brain’s claustrum, a thin sheet-like structure located deep within the brain. Researchers then used a number of electrodes to record signals from different brain regions, in order to work out the origin of the seizures typical of the condition. When the claustrum was stimulated with electrical impulses, the patient consistently lost consciousness, ceasing to respond to both auditory and visual commands, and experienced slower breathing. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness, with no memory of the event.

The medical journal Epilepsy and Behaviour published study findings which detailed how this technique could be explored as a potential means of resetting or correcting the currently uncontrollable and destructive brain activity which occurs during an epileptic seizure.

This study offers possible wider insights into the nature of the human consciousness in general, making it a potentially ground-breaking piece of research.

Speaking to New Scientist, head of the study’s research team Professor Mohamad Koubeissi said: “I would liken it to a car, a car on the road has many parts that facilitate its movement – the gas, the transmission, the engine – 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.”

Epilepsy affects over 500,000 people in the UK, occurring when electrical impulses in the brain are disrupted – which results in seizures. As such, studies of brain function are vital in expanding understanding of the condition.

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