Epilepsy research uncovers ‘on-off switch’ for brain

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Scientists in the US have found a possible new method of toggling a person’s consciousness on and off, opening the door for new approaches to treating epilepsy.

A team from George Washington University have uncovered a means of using deep brain stimulation to instantly send a patient with epilepsy into unconsciousness, before bringing her back again through the same method.

The patient in question had an electrode implanted close to the claustrum, a thin, sheet-like structure located deep inside the brain. The researchers were using a number of electrodes to record signals from different brain regions, in order to work out the origin of seizures.

When the claustrum was stimulated with electrical impulses, the patient consistently lost consciousness, ceasing to respond to auditory or visual commands and experiencing slower breathing. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness, with no memory of the event.

According to study findings published in the medical journal Epilepsy & Behavior, it is thought that this technique could be explored as a potential means of resetting or correcting the uncontrolled and destructive brain activity that occurs during an epileptic seizure.

However, the phenomenon also offers possible wider insights into the nature of consciousness in general, making it a potentially groundbreaking piece of research.

Speaking to New Scientist, lead researcher Professor Mohamad Koubeissi said: “I would liken it to a car, a car on the road has many parts that facilitate its movement – the gas, the transmission, the engine – but there’s only one spot where you turn the key and it all switches on and works together.

“So while consciousness is a complicated process created via many structures and networks, we may have found the key.”

Epilepsy affects more than 500,000 people in the UK, occurring when electrical impulses in the brain are disrupted, resulting in seizures. As such, studies of brain function are vital in expanding understanding of the condition.

Posted by Bob Jones