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Neuron Behind Consciousness In Animals Identified, Study Suggests

First Posted: Mar 03, 2017 03:39 AM EST

How does an interconnected group of cells regulate the state of consciousness in animals? This is one of those questions with the answer still ambiguous. Though science has helped in understanding the basic structure of the brain and its functioning to some extent, the exact role of neurons in regulating the various physiological functions associated with the state of consciousness is yet to be elucidated.

In one of the most recent studies, Christof Koch, from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Washington, and his team discovered a giant neuron wrapped around the mouse brain, which according to them regulates the state of consciousness. Koch presented their groundbreaking research findings at the recently conducted Brain research convention in Maryland.

According to Nature, Koch and his team used the digital reconstruction method to image the mouse brain, which revealed three extensively branched neurons, with one wrapped the entire brain. Koch also revealed that the three neurons were integrated into the claustrum region of the brain. According to him, it is responsible for maintaining the state of consciousness in animals including mice and human.

The most important and perhaps the only other evidence in the association of consciousness and claustrum dates back to 2014. It was when the Medical Faculty Associates of the George Washington University accidently discovered an on-off switch that regulated consciousness in a 54-year-old female epileptic patient.

Dr. Mohamad Koubeissi and his team found that when the electrodes placed near the claustrum region of the brain were stimulated, the woman went blank and did not respond to any stimuli, i.e., she was left unconscious. Retraction of the electrical stimuli brought her back to consciousness and she had no recollection of the time lapsed in between, Quartz reported.

According to Scientific American, Rafael Yuste, expert neurobiologist from Columbia University, New York City, said that though the present effort made by Koch and his team is "quite admirable," the present experiment did not provide any direct proof of the correlation between claustrum and consciousness. The only way to confirm it is by obtaining and analyzing the 3D constructions of these individual neurons.

The present methods of studying the neurons involve injecting a dye into them and tracing the presence of the dye in thin-sliced sections of the brain and mapping out the neuron's path. It is a very complicated and painstakingly long process. Therefore, obtaining the constructions of each individual neuron may take a significant amount of time. Only after then would the exact role of claustrum in regulating consciousness in animals can be confirmed.

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