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article imageNeuroscientists determine what makes consciousness

By Tim Sandle     Jan 25, 2017 in Science
Neuroscientists have been studying the brain for the neural networks associated with consciousness. The identification of the brain network necessary for consciousness has come about through magnetic resonance imaging.
Consciousness is a descriptor for our awareness of, and response to, ourselves, other people and our environment. What makes us conscious? The answer to this question on a metaphysical level cannot be answered here, but in terms of neural activity researchers have identified some likely pathways.
The attempt to pinpoint the anatomical basis for consciousness has come from Professor Michael Fox, Director of the Laboratory for Brain Network Imaging and Modulation at Harvard University. The focus is with the neurobiology that supports consciousness.
For the research, the neuroscientists examined the brain activity of twelve people. Each of the people had coma-causing lesions. These brains cans were compared with the brain patterns of 24 healthy individuals. The research focused on the brainstem, given that this area is affected by coma-causing lesions.
With this analysis the researchers declared they had located the part of this brain region that is critical for consciousness. This is called the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum. This area has previously been associated with a range of functions including sensory and motor functions.
This area was shown via a method called resting-state functional connectivity, which is a specialist type of magnetic resonance imaging. Speaking with Bioscience Technology, one of the lead researchers, David Fischer said: “This technology had never been applied to the brainstem before. A really big challenge was getting reliable connectivity data to this region, which is a small part of the brain that’s difficult to get signal from.”
From this in-depth scanning, the researchers located two cortical areas, termed the ventral anterior insula and the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, which are linked with arousal and awareness. These areas actively communicate with the brainstem. The inference is that these regions represent the brain network that supports consciousness.
The next phase of the research is use the knowledge to help people who suffer with consciousness disorders. The research findings are published in the journal Neurology, with the research paper being titled “A human brain network derived from coma-causing brainstem lesions.”
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