Scientists have discovered the brain’s "on" switch, enabling them to turn the consciousness of monkeys on and off at will.
A team co-led by Yuri Saalmann, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discovered that stimulating a tiny chamber deep in the brain called the central lateral thalamus would instantly wake up a monkey that had been knocked out with a powerful anaesthetic.
Tiny electric shocks “switched on” the brains of the macaque, awakening them in seconds.
Saalmann said: "We found that when we stimulated this tiny little brain area, we could wake the animals up and reinstate all the neural activity that you'd normally see in the cortex during wakefulness."
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"They acted just as they would if they were awake. When we switched off the stimulation, the animals went straight back to being unconscious.”
The experiment sounds cruel almost to the point of nastiness, but there is a valuable purpose to it, according to Michelle Redinbaugh, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison
Redinbaugh, who was one of the leaders of the study explained: "The overriding motivation of this research is to help people with disorders of consciousness to live better lives."
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"We have to start by understanding the minimum mechanism that is necessary or sufficient for consciousness, so that the correct part of the brain can be targeted clinically."
"There are many exciting implications for this work," she added. "It's possible we may be able to use these kinds of deep-brain stimulating electrodes to bring people out of comas.
“Our findings may also be useful for developing new ways to monitor patients under clinical anaesthesia, to make sure they are safely unconscious."
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The team’s paper, published in scientific journal Neuron, details the experiment. The monkeys were anaesthetised for a full two hours before being “switched on” by the micro-electric shocks.
As soon as their brains were stimulate they opened their eyes, stretched their limbs and reacted normally to sound and light.
When the electricity was switched off, they immediately lost consciousness again.
Animal health was monitored by veterinarians at the WNPRC. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approved all procedures, which conformed to the National Institutes of Health Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
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