Finnish scientists have managed to reveal for the first time the neural mechanisms that underlie consciousness and unconsciousness.
They found that the same brain regions act on and show changes in neuronal dynamics in periods of consciousness and unconsciousness, specifically the thalamus, anterior and posterior cingulate cortices, and bilateral angular gyri.
The discovery of a neural network that equally affects the processes of consciousness and unconsciousness and the intermediate states will change the established conceptions about the fundamental nature of human consciousness, providing new information on related brain functions.
In addition, it will shed light on the understanding of the anesthetic state and its characteristics. The findings were made in the framework of research conducted at the University of Turku in Finland, as reported in a release.
Anesthesia and sleep
Studies performed with positron emission tomography (PET) images show that activity in the indicated sectors is affected regardless of the application of an anesthetic agent, its concentration, or the direction of the change in consciousness.
At the same time, the experiments carried out with drugs with anesthetic power, to evaluate their impact on the states of consciousness and unconsciousness, determined that the specialists obtained important conclusions about the nature of the anesthetic state.
In the study results, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers indicated that total loss of consciousness is not essential for general anesthesia to be effective and meet its objectives. Contrary to popular belief, experts argued that it is only necessary to disconnect the patient’s experiences from what happens in the operating room.
Similarities Between Anesthesia and Sleep
Going deeper, the scientists concluded, based on the studies carried out, that the characteristics of the anesthetic state and of conventional sleep have more similarities than those found so far. They also determined that subjective experiences are common during general anesthesia.
They also found that the lack of response does not mark a state of total unconsciousness in most cases, that is, an absolute absence of subjective experiences. On the contrary, the participants reported different internal experiences, such as dreams, in the framework of the interviews that accompanied the PET studies.
Although this data is not new because it had already been corroborated in previous research, it is new in the context of verifying the existence of a specific neural network that acts equally during states of consciousness and unconsciousness.
No more about consciousness
According to specialists, a key point of the research is that its experimental design made it possible to distinguish specific changes in the state of consciousness in volunteers from the general effects of applied anesthesia.
This made it possible to obtain transcendent conclusions about the conditions of the anesthetic state, the performance of a common neural network in the different processes and the general understanding of the phenomenon of human consciousness.
What aspects condition the altered states of consciousness, the unconsciousness or the intermediate phases? There is no doubt that knowing in detail the biological basis of human consciousness is one of the greatest challenges in science today. The findings made in this study may constitute an important advance in this regard.
Foundations of human consciousness: Imaging the twilight zone. Annalist Schwinn, Oskari Keystone, Michael Alkire, Jaakko Landsö, Katja Valli, Harry Schwinn et al. Journal of Neuroscience (202. .DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0775-20.2020
Cover photo: Gerd Altmann anPiracyay.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.