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Researchers Uncover More About Human Consciousness

Update Date: Oct 18, 2013 03:32 PM EDT

The human consciousness has interested researchers for decades. Due to the fact that consciousness does not have a definition, studying how it works in the brain is quite difficult. In a new study, psychologists from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) attempted to expand their understanding of the unconsciousness by studying the brain during an unconscious state. Although the researchers could not define what consciousness is exactly, they were able to identify certain neuron activities that provided insight as to how the brain crosses over from being conscious to unconscious.

"In terms of brain function, the difference between being conscious and unconscious is a bit like the difference between driving from Los Angeles to New York in a straight line versus having to cover the same route hopping on and off several buses that force you to take a 'zig-zag' route and stop in several places," said lead study author Martin Monti, an assistant professor of psychology and neurosurgery at UCLA.

For this study, Monti and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on 12 healthy participants. The volunteers included six males and six females between the ages of 18 and 31. The researchers induced the state of unconsciousness in each individual using anesthesia with propofol. The team then used graph theory, which is a branch of mathematics, to examine the brain's network properties.

Based on previous studies, researchers know that certain emotions, such as pleasure, are controlled specifically in certain areas of the brain. The researchers concluded that consciousness, however, does not belong to any regions of the brain. Instead, they noted that consciousness and unconsciousness are affected by the activity of neurons and how they communicated with each other.

"It turns out that when we lose consciousness, the communication among areas of the brain becomes extremely inefficient, as if suddenly each area of the brain became very distant from every other, making it difficult for information to travel from one place to another," Monti said.

The researchers hope that by studying the communication that occurs in the brain, they could eventually find a way to treat people in comas or in vegetative states. The study, conducted at Belgium's University Hospital of Liege, was published in PLOS Computational Biology.

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