Neurology professor uncovers on-off switch in the human brain

GW Hospital
Mohamed Koubeissi, the director of the GW Hospital Epilepsy Center, led the group of researchers. Hatchet File Photo
A team of GW researchers may have accidentally discovered an on-off switch for consciousness in the human brain.

The group was trying to find the source of a woman’s seizures when it made her lose consciousness by stimulating a part of the brain called the claustrum, according to a report published this week by the research magazine New Scientist.

Led by Mohamed Koubeissi, an associate professor of neurology and the director of the GW Hospital Epilepsy Center, the researchers activated the thin sheet of neurons in the center of the brain repeatedly, and the woman reacted the same way each time: She lost consciousness but had no recollection of doing so.

Koubeissi told the magazine that they are sure the loss of consciousness was not a side effect of a seizure. He likened the case 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,” he told New Scientist. “So while consciousness is a complicated process created via many structures and networks, we may have found the key.”

Because the woman has epilepsy, a healthy brain may react differently to the treatment. The team is now planning to test whether triggering the claustrum can jolt a patient out of a minimally conscious state.

“Perhaps we could try to stimulate this region in an attempt to push them out of this state,” Koubeissi said.

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