Human consciousness is perhaps one of the most complicated puzzles that scientists have been struggling to put together for ages. Even though we’ve advanced an incredible amount in science, we still have yet to get a grasp on it. But believe it or not, scientists may have pinpointed the physical origins of human consciousness.
There are three regions that are coming out as crucial to consciousness. A team of researchers at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre at Harvard Medical School have been working hard to pin it down.
Michael Fox, a lead researcher, said, “For the first time, we have found a connection between the brainstem region involved in arousal and regions involved in awareness, two prerequisites for consciousness.” He went on to say, “A lot of pieces of evidence all came together to point to this network playing a role in human consciousness.”
Science says that consciousness is made up of arousal and awareness. It has already been shown that arousal is normally regulated by the brainstem or the portion of the brain that is connected to the spinal cord. It helps us sleep and wake up using our breathing and heart rate. Awareness hasn’t been as easy to pin down.
For quite a while, scientists thought that it might lay somewhere within the outer layer of the brain known as the cortex. But much to their surprise, two cortex regions in the brain are appearing to work as a team in order to make up human consciousness.
But how did they figure this out?
Well, 36 patients in a hospital with brain lesions were studied. 12 of them were unconscious or in a coma and 24 of them were conscious. They were analyzed to figure out why some patients had stayed conscious while others were unconscious, though they had similar injuries.
The rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum is a small area of the brainstem and was found to be associated with unconsciousness. 10 our or 12 unconscious individuals had damage in this area of the brain where only 1 out of the 24 conscious patients did. This means that this portion of the brain is important when it comes to consciousness.
Researchers then looked at the connectome, also known as a brain map, to see all the various connections in our brains. Two specific areas were connected to the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum. One of them was located in the ventral anterior insula and the other in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex. In previous studies, both these areas have been known to play some part in arousal and awareness, but never before had they been connected to the brainstem.
More studies were conducted, all with the same conclusions:
“This is the most relevant if we can use these networks as a target for brain stimulation for people with disorders of consciousness,” said Michael Fox. This study could eventually lead to new treatments for individuals who are in comas or those who have healthy brains and can’t regain consciousness.
“If we zero in on the regions and network involved, can we someday wake someone up who is in a persistent vegetative state? That’s the ultimate question.”
This research could lead to a whole new world of possibilities in medical science.
Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll be able to cure someone who’s been in a coma for years. But for now, this is the beginning of exciting new medical developments in science.