The new discovery in mammals may help scientists know more about consciousness
No one knew it until now, but scientists have just detected a giant neuron wrapped around the entire circumference of the brain. An article in Science Alert reports that the neuron is “so densely connected across both hemispheres, it could finally explain the origins of consciousness.” The research was presented at a meeting last month of the Brain Research though Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative in Bethesda, Maryland.
The recently discovered neuron is one of three that have been found in a mammal’s brain using a new imaging technique. Researchers who found it say the largest one wraps about the brain like a “crown of thorns.” This neuron emanates from one of the best-connected regions of the brain that we still know very little about, an area called the claustrum, a thin sheet of gray matter believed to control consciousness in some way. The claustrum is so densely connected to several crucial brain areas that Francis Crick, a scientist famous for the DNA double helix discovery, refers to it as a “conductor of consciousness.”
Some strange medical cases over the years have made the case stronger for the theory that theory that the claustrum acts like a conductor of an orchestra in the brain. One case was that of a 54-year-old woman who was being treated for epilepsy. While probing different areas of her brain with electrodes they found that when they zapped the claustrum, she lost consciousness. She stopped reading, stared blankly, and didn’t respond. Once the stimulation stopped, she regained consciousness and had no memory of the event.
The new neurons, including this latest one, have been found just in mice so far, and the research as not been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal, so researchers are awaiting confirmation of their findings before “delving further into what this could mean for humans.” They do agree, however, that it’s a finding that can help us make sense of this mysterious part of the brain.