Lying down after a long day, your head hits the pillow and your eyes close. The next minute you wake up with no recollection of the past several hours. Consciousness is an elusive concept – it is temporarily lost when we sleep, altered by drugs, and can be permanently lost with brain damage. It is a state of self-awareness that emerges from a network of brain circuits, in a way which we don’t yet understand. Consciousness is difficult to study because it is a subjective experience – interpreted individually. It remains one of the great mysteries of human existence.
Scientists from seven countries around the world, have been working together to study patterns of brain activity and how they might reflect consciousness. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which detects brain activity by measuring changes in blood flow, the scientists examined the brain activity of 125 individuals – some healthy, and some in a vegetative state. Interestingly, heathy individuals displayed complex communication between areas across the brain, while patients in a vegetative state only showed communication between physically linked areas of the brain. This complex communication pattern was lost when healthy individuals were put under anesthesia, supporting the link between the complex pattern and consciousness.
Although this data does not tell us how consciousness arises, it might have important implications for understanding what happens when the brain gets damaged and a patient enters into a coma. If we could find ways to induce the complex communication pattern, could we communicate with or even restore consciousness in these patients? Interestingly, this research could also be relevant for treating people with insomnia. Typically when you fall asleep, the brain reduces conscious awareness so that you can enter deep sleep. Insomniacs, however, exhibit sleep misperception – a state in which their eyes are closed and their brain exhibits a characteristic sleep pattern, but they maintain conscious awareness. Could inhibiting the complex communication pattern help insomniacs fall asleep?
Managing Correspondent: Jeremy Gungabeesoon
News Article: Brain scans decode an elusive signature of consciousness. ScienceNews
Original Article: Human consciousness is supported by dynamic complex patterns of brain signal coordination. Science Advances
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