Astoundingly, scientists have discovered a gigantic neuron wrapped around a mouse’s brain. The neuron is connected across two hemispheres, and, more incredibly yet, this neuron could potentially explain the origins of consciousness. Special imaging revealed this neuron emanating from a very well-connected region of the brain, and there is a real possibility that it coordinates signals to create conscious thought. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative and a team from the Allen Institute for Brain Science have helped explain three of these types of neurons, but the one in question wraps around the brain like a “crown of thorns”.
An image of this neuron can be seen at the top of this article. Head researcher Christof Koch told Sara Reardon at Nature that this type of neuron is the only one on record which extends this far. More specifically, this is the claustrum region of the brain, which is thin grey matter that could potentially be the most connected structure in the brain as a whole. This is a small region that has the capability to communicate with virtually all regions of cortex in order to achieve many higher cognitive functions: language, planning, seeing, and hearing.
Koch argues that, “Advanced brain-imaging techniques that look at the white matter fibres coursing to and from the claustrum reveal that it is a neural Grand Central Station. Almost every region of the cortex sends fibres to the claustrum.”
This neuron could connect all external and internal perceptions into one unifying experience, similar to how a conductor guides an orchestra. What’s more, there have been cases in the past that support this idea. According to Helen Thomson from New Scientist, a female patient had this region of her brain “zapped . . . with high frequency electrical impulses . . . [and] the woman lost consciousness. She stopped reading and stared blankly into space, she didn’t respond to auditory or visual commands and her breathing slowed. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness with no memory of the event. The same thing happened every time the area was stimulated during two days of experiments.”
According to Koch, another experiment in 2015 studied the impact of claustrum lesions on the consciousness of 171 combat veterans who had brain injuries. It was discovered that claustrum damage is associated with the duration of loss of consciousness, which indicates that it likely plays a significant role regarding the switching on and the switching off of conscious thought. To gather more info by mapping neurons, Koch and researchers injected individual nerve cells with a dye. They then sliced the brain into thin sections and traced the neuron’s path by hand.
As per Reardon reports for Nature, “When the researchers fed the mice a small amount of the drug, only a handful of neurons received enough of it to switch on these genes. That resulted in production of a green fluorescent protein that spread throughout the entire neuron. The team then took 10,000 cross-sectional images of the mouse brain, and used a computer program to create a 3D reconstruction of just three glowing cells.” Further research is obviously needed before human experiments can even seriously be considered, but the findings shown at the February meeting of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative could very well end up being ground-breaking work pertaining to consciousness in all forms of “intelligent” life.
*This content was inspired by an amazing article that can be found here.