To do so, an approach with the broadest scope is needed: diverse theoretical frameworks, brain anatomy, physiology, and chemistry across scales and species, detailed and large-scale computer simulations, deep learning, neuromorphic computing, robotics, clinical neurology, anaesthesiology, psychology, behavioural, computational, and philosophical analysis must interact and blend on a single infrastructure.
These ingredients are naturally present in the Human Brain Project, and this workshop, stirred by world-leading scholars in the field, is where they come together for the first time.
The spectrum of consciousness-related conundrums is rapidly expanding: we are saving islands of human brain from devastating injuries, growing cerebral organoids in a vat, and building intelligent machines that perform faster and better than any healthy subject, just to mention a few.
Where does consciousness arise? Where is the boundary between insentient matter and a spark of subjectivity? Brain activity in people in an apparently non-responsive state can be similar to that of healthy people.
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Credit: Adrian M. The finding that some people in a coma show signs of consciousness was transformative for neuroscience, says Seth. The work suggested that some people could understand speech and possibly communicate, even when they seemed not to respond to doctors and family members. In , a study used fMRI to monitor the brains of 54 people in Belgium and the United Kingdom with severe brain injuries 2. Two of those five people did not demonstrate any awareness in conventional bedside assessments. Scientists have also started to test ways of detecting consciousness without the need to give people verbal instructions.
The technique is similar to knocking on the brain, in the same way that a person might knock on a wall to gauge its thickness, says Martin Monti, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. While a person is under general anaesthesia, or in a dreamless sleep, the echoes that are produced are simple. But in the conscious brain, the echoes are complex and spread widely over the surface of the cerebral cortex the outer layer of the brain.
As scientists have become more adept at detecting consciousness, they have begun to determine which brain regions and circuits are most important. But there is still much debate about what constitutes consciousness in neural terms, with particular disagreement over which brain processes and regions matter most. Since at least the nineteenth century, scientists have known that the cerebral cortex is important for consciousness.
For example, in a sleep study, researchers roused people throughout the night while monitoring them with EEG 4. The study showed that those people without conscious experiences during sleep had lots of low-frequency activity in the posterior-cortical region of their brains before waking. People who reported that they had been dreaming, however, had less low-frequency activity and more high-frequency activity.
It has become increasingly clear, however, that consciousness is not confined to only one region of the brain.
Various cells and pathways are engaged, depending on what is being perceived or the type of perception that is involved. Investigating the coordination of neural signalling might help researchers to find reliable signatures of consciousness. In a study that collected fMRI data from people, researchers found that, compared with people in minimally conscious states and those under anaesthesia, the brains of healthy individuals had more complex patterns of coordinated signalling that also changed constantly 5.
Plenty of unknowns remain. Nevertheless, studies of brain function at various levels of consciousness are starting to offer alternative ways of looking at the brain at a mechanistic level. Attempts at intervention are in progress, and people with brain injuries could be among the first to benefit. On the basis of research that points to the thalamus as playing an important part in consciousness, for example, Monti and his colleagues have been experimenting with a non-invasive technique that uses ultrasound to stimulate that region of the brain in people with brain damage.
They conducted their initial test of the procedure on a year-old man who was in a coma after a car accident 19 days earlier. Within 3 days, the man recovered his ability to understand language, to respond to commands and to answer yes—no questions with head gestures. Five days later, he was trying to walk. The case report 6 , published in , makes it clear that his recovery could have been a coincidence — people often emerge from comas spontaneously.
But unpublished follow-up work suggests that the ultrasound approach probably does make a difference.
Explaining consciousness and the other biggest mysteries of your brain | New Scientist
The patient had long been in a minimally conscious state, in which people show some evidence of awareness of their environment or themselves. He was able to reliably answer yes by looking up, and no by looking down. Monti remembers visiting the patient and his wife soon after the procedure. A hallucination created by a machine-learning algorithm that simulates altered visual perception.
Monti and his colleagues have found similarly encouraging results in several other people in persistent comas, but it is unclear whether the benefits last for more than a few weeks before recipients revert to their original state. Further inroads into the mechanisms of consciousness might lead to better treatments for anxiety, phobias and PTSD, suggests work by Hakwan Lau, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues.
The standard approach to treating fears is exposure therapy, which pushes people to repeatedly face the thing that scares them the most. In a double-blind trial, the researchers challenged 17 people to make a dot on a computer screen bigger, using any mental strategy 7. The larger they could make it, the more money they would be paid for completing the study.
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Participants could think about whatever they wanted. Over time, participants became better at activating the correct parts of their brain, but without knowingly thinking of fear-evoking creatures. Activation of the amygdala, an area of the brain that responds to threats, was also reduced.
Lau and his colleagues are testing the procedure on people with phobias, and eventually they hope to use it to treat PTSD. But the technique has a considerable limitation.