Scientists from George Washington University may have stumbled onto quite the discovery. While studying epilepsy, researchers think they may have accidentally found an ‘on/off’ switch for the brain. Literally our very own light switch. I wonder how long until someone makes an app for that. Bed time? Hit your switch.
How was this discovery made? It was a study on epilepsy and researchers had deep-brain electrodes hooked to a patient. The intent was to pinpoint the area of the brain that was causing her seizures. The placement and subsequent frequency led to the discovery.
Scientists had placed an electrode on the claustrum – a thin, sheet-like structure within the brain. This is where it gets interesting. When the area was stimulated at with high frequency impulses, the patient unexpectedly lost consciousness. She lost the ability to respond to visual and auditory stimuli.
Before you think this is a new form of torture, researchers said the effect on the patient was he slowing down and eventually losing consciousness. They conducted trials of stimulating the same area and had the exact result each time. The patient woke up, having no memory of what happened.
One portion of the study that is going to demand more attention is the patient did not have a ‘normal brain’. The patient that researchers looked at in the epilepsy study had a portion of her hippocampus removed as part of a previous epilepsy treatment. So, even though every electrical impulse to the claustrum had a consistent result, scientists will need to do a study involving complete brains and across a broad subset of the population.
The team will also be looking at whether stimulating the region at low frequencies can push people back to full consciousness.
What are some of the ramifications? Well, painless surgery is on table for one. Better epileptic treatments. It could be that scientists have unlocked the human consciousness. That may be stretching it a bit, but one could hope this ‘accidental’ discovery leads to a wealth of medical knowledge.