Links for Keyword: Consciousness
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
By David Shultz We still may not know what causes consciousness in humans, but scientists are at least learning how to detect its presence. A new application of a common clinical test, the positron emission tomography (PET) scan, seems to be able to differentiate between minimally conscious brains and those in a vegetative state. The work could help doctors figure out which brain trauma patients are the most likely to recover—and even shed light on the nature of consciousness. “This is really cool what these guys did here,” says neuroscientist Nicholas Schiff at Cornell University, who was not involved in the study. “We’re going to make great use of it.” PET scans work by introducing a small amount of radionuclides into the body. These radioactive compounds act as a tracer and naturally emit subatomic particles called positrons over time, and the gamma rays indirectly produced by this process can be detected by imaging equipment. The most common PET scan uses fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) as the tracer in order to show how glucose concentrations change in tissue over time—a proxy for metabolic activity. Compared with other imaging techniques, PET scans are relatively cheap and easy to perform, and are routinely used to survey for cancer, heart problems, and other diseases. In the new study, researchers used FDG-PET scans to analyze the resting cerebral metabolic rate—the amount of energy being used by the tissue—of 131 patients with a so-called disorder of consciousness and 28 healthy controls. Disorders of consciousness can refer to a wide range of problems, ranging from a full-blown coma to a minimally conscious state in which patients may experience brief periods where they can communicate and follow instructions. Between these two extremes, patients may be said to be in a vegetative state or exhibit unresponsive wakefulness, characterized by open eyes and basic reflexes, but no signs of awareness. Most disorders of consciousness result from head trauma, and where someone falls on the consciousness continuum is typically determined by the severity of the injury. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 2: Functional Neuroanatomy: The Nervous System and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 2: Cells and Structures: The Anatomy of the Nervous System
Link ID: 22260 - Posted: 05.28.2016
Stephen Cave For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness. Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.” So what happens if this faith erodes? The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect. This shift in perception is the continuation of an intellectual revolution that began about 150 years ago, when Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. Shortly after Darwin put forth his theory of evolution, his cousin Sir Francis Galton began to draw out the implications: If we have evolved, then mental faculties like intelligence must be hereditary. But we use those faculties—which some people have to a greater degree than others—to make decisions. So our ability to choose our fate is not free, but depends on our biological inheritance. © 2016 by The Atlantic Monthly Group.
George Johnson At the Science of Consciousness conference last month in Tucson, I was faced with a quandary: Which of eight simultaneous sessions should I attend? In one room, scientists and philosophers were discussing the physiology of brain cells and how they might generate the thinking mind. In another, the subject was free will — real or an illusion? Next door was a session on panpsychism, the controversial (to say the least) idea that everything — animal, vegetable and mineral — is imbued at its subatomic roots with mindlike qualities. Running on parallel tracks were sessions titled “Phenomenal Consciousness,” the “Neural Correlates of Consciousness” and the “Extended Mind.” For much of the 20th century, the science of consciousness was widely dismissed as an impenetrable mystery, a morass of a problem that could be safely pursued only by older professors as they thought deep thoughts in their endowed chairs. Beginning in the 1990s, the field slowly became more respectable. There is, after all, a gaping hole in science. The human mind has plumbed the universe, concluding that it is precisely 13.8 billion years old. With particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, scientists have discovered the vanishingly tiny particles, like the Higgs boson, that underpin reality. But there is no scientific explanation for consciousness — without which none of these discoveries could have been made. © 2016 The New York Times Company
By John Horgan Speakers at the 2016 Tucson consciousness conference suggested that “temporal nonlocality” or other quantum effects in the brain could account for free will. But what happens when the brain is immersed in a hot tub? This is the second of four posts on “The Science of Consciousness” in Tucson, Arizona, which lasted from April 26 to April 30. (See Further Reading for links to other posts.) Once again, I’m trying to answer the question: What is it like to be a skeptical journalist at a consciousness conference? -- John Horgan DAY 2, THURSDAY, APRIL 28. HOT TUBS AND QUANTUM INCOHERENCE Breakfast on the patio with Stuart Kauffman, who has training in… almost everything. Philosophy, medicine, science. We’ve bumped heads in the past, but we’re friendly now. In his mid-70s, Stu is still obsessed with--and hacking away at--the biggest mysteries. We talk about… almost everything. Quantum mechanics, the origin of life, materialism, free will, God, the birth and death of his daughter, the death of his wife, his re-marriage, predictability versus possibility. As Stu speaks, his magnificent, weathered face looks happy/sad, arrogant/anxious. Superposition of emotions. He tells me about his brand-new book, Humanity in a Creative Universe, in which he outlines a perspective that can help lift us out of our spiritual crisis. Who saves the savior? I scoot to a morning session, “Consciousness and Free Will.” I hope it will supply me with ammo for my defenses of free will. I can do without God, but not free will. © 2016 Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc.
By John Horgan Scientists trying to explain consciousness are entitled to be difficult, but what’s philosophers’ excuse? Don’t they have a moral duty to be comprehensible to non-specialists? I recently attended “The Science of Consciousness,” the legendary inquest held every two years in Tucson, Arizona. I reported on the first meeting in 1994 and wanted to see how it’s evolved since then. This year’s shindig lasted from April 26 to April 30 and featured hundreds of presenters, eminent and obscure. I arrived on the afternoon of April 27 and stayed through the closing “End-of-Consciousness Party.” The only event I regret missing is a chat between philosopher David Chalmers, who loosed his “hard problem of consciousness” meme here in Tucson in 1994, and Deepak Chopra, the New Age mogul and a sponsor of this year’s meeting. I feel obliged to post something fast, because conference organizer and quantum-consciousness advocate Stuart Hameroff complained that most reporters “come for free, drink our booze and don’t write anything.” Hameroff also generously allowed me to give a talk, “The Quest to Solve Consciousness: A Skeptic’s View,” even though I teased him in my 1994 article for Scientific American, calling him an “aging hipster.” What follows is a highly subjective account of my first day at the meeting. I’d call this a “stream-of-consciousness report on consciousness,” but that would be pretentious. I'm just trying to answer this question: What is it like to be a skeptical journalist at a consciousness conference? I’ll post on the rest of the meeting soon. -- John Horgan DAY 1, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27. THE HOROR A bullet-headed former New York fireman picks me up at the Tucson airport. Driving to the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, he argues strenuously that President Trump will make us great again. As we approach the resort, he back-peddles a bit, no doubt worried about his tip. I tip him well, to show how tolerant I am. Everyone’s entitled to an irrational belief or two. © 2016 Scientific American
By Adam Bear It happens hundreds of times a day: We press snooze on the alarm clock, we pick a shirt out of the closet, we reach for a beer in the fridge. In each case, we conceive of ourselves as free agents, consciously guiding our bodies in purposeful ways. But what does science have to say about the true source of this experience? In a classic paper published almost 20 years ago, the psychologists Dan Wegner and Thalia Wheatley made a revolutionary proposal: The experience of intentionally willing an action, they suggested, is often nothing more than a post hoc causal inference that our thoughts caused some behavior. The feeling itself, however, plays no causal role in producing that behavior. This could sometimes lead us to think we made a choice when we actually didn’t or think we made a different choice than we actually did. But there’s a mystery here. Suppose, as Wegner and Wheatley propose, that we observe ourselves (unconsciously) perform some action, like picking out a box of cereal in the grocery store, and then only afterwards come to infer that we did this intentionally. If this is the true sequence of events, how could we be deceived into believing that we had intentionally made our choice before the consequences of this action were observed? This explanation for how we think of our agency would seem to require supernatural backwards causation, with our experience of conscious will being both a product and an apparent cause of behavior. In a study just published in Psychological Science, Paul Bloom and I explore a radical—but non-magical—solution to this puzzle. © 2016 Scientific America
By JAMES GORMAN Bees find nectar and tell their hive-mates; flies evade the swatter; and cockroaches seem to do whatever they like wherever they like. But who would believe that insects are conscious, that they are aware of what’s going on, not just little biobots? Neuroscientists and philosophers apparently. As scientists lean increasingly toward recognizing that nonhuman animals are conscious in one way or another, the question becomes: Where does consciousness end? Andrew B. Barron, a cognitive scientist, and Colin Klein, a philosopher, at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, propose in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that insects have the capacity for consciousness. This does not mean that a honeybee thinks, “Why am I not the queen?” or even, “Oh, I like that nectar.” But, Dr. Barron and Dr. Klein wrote in a scientific essay, the honeybee has the capacity to feel something. Their claim stops short of some others. Christof Koch, the president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin, have proposed that consciousness is nearly ubiquitous in different degrees, and can be present even in nonliving arrangements of matter, to varying degrees. They say that rather than wonder how consciousness arises, one should look at where we know it exists and go from there to where else it might exist. They conclude that it is an inherent property of physical systems in which information moves around in a certain way — and that could include some kinds of artificial intelligence and even naturally occurring nonliving matter. © 2016 The New York Times Company
By Matthew Hutson Bad news for believers in clairvoyance. Our brains appear to rewrite history so that the choices we make after an event seem to precede it. In other words, we add loops to our mental timeline that let us feel we can predict things that in reality have already happened. Adam Bear and Paul Bloom at Yale University conducted some simple tests on volunteers. In one experiment, subjects looked at white circles and silently guessed which one would turn red. Once one circle had changed colour, they reported whether or not they had predicted correctly. Over many trials, their reported accuracy was significantly better than the 20 per cent expected by chance, indicating that the volunteers either had psychic abilities or had unwittingly played a mental trick on themselves. The researchers’ study design helped explain what was really going on. They placed different delays between the white circles’ appearance and one of the circles turning red, ranging from 50 milliseconds to one second. Participants’ reported accuracy was highest – surpassing 30 per cent – when the delays were shortest. That’s what you would expect if the appearance of the red circle was actually influencing decisions still in progress. This suggests it’s unlikely that the subjects were merely lying about their predictive abilities to impress the researchers. The mechanism behind this behaviour is still unclear. It’s possible, the researchers suggest, that we perceive the order of events correctly – one circle changes colour before we have actually made our prediction – but then we subconsciously swap the sequence in our memories so the prediction seems to come first. Such a switcheroo could be motivated by a desire to feel in control of our lives. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Daniel Barron It’s unnerving when someone with no criminal record commits a disturbingly violent crime. Perhaps he stabs his girlfriend 40 times and dumps her body in the desert. Perhaps he climbs to the top of a clock tower and guns down innocent passers-by. Or perhaps he climbs out of a car at a stoplight and nearly decapitates an unsuspecting police officer with 26 rounds from an assault rifle. Perhaps he even drowns his own children. Or shoots the President of the United States. The shock is palpable (NB: those are all actual cases). The very notion that someone—our neighbor, the guy ahead of us in the check-out line, we (!)—could do something so terrible rubs at our minds. We wonder, “What happened? What in this guy snapped?” After all, for the last 20 years, the accused went home to his family after work—why did he go rob that liquor store? What made him pull that trigger? The subject hit home for me this week when I was called to jury duty. As I made my way to the county courthouse, I wondered whether I would be asked to decide a capital murder case like the ones above. As a young neuroscientist, the prospect made me uneasy. At the trial, the accused’s lawyers would probably argue that, at the time of the crime, he had diminished capacity to make decisions, that somehow he wasn’t entirely free to choose whether or not to commit the crime. They might cite some form of neuroscientific evidence to argue that, at the time of the crime, his brain wasn’t functioning normally. And the jury and judge have to decide what to make of it. © 2016 Scientific American
Giant manta rays have been filmed checking out their reflections in a way that suggests they are self-aware. Only a small number of animals, mostly primates, have passed the mirror test, widely used as a tentative test of self-awareness. “This new discovery is incredibly important,” says Marc Bekoff, of the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It shows that we really need to expand the range of animals we study.” But not everyone is convinced that the new study proves conclusively that manta rays, which have the largest brains of any fish, can do this – or indeed, that the mirror test itself is an appropriate measure of self-awareness. Csilla Ari, of the University of South Florida in Tampa, filmed two giant manta rays in a tank, with and without a mirror inside.The fish changed their behaviour in a way that suggested that they recognised the reflections as themselves as opposed to another manta ray. They did not show signs of social interaction with the image, which is what you would expect if they perceived it to be another individual. Instead, the rays repeatedly moved their fins and circled in front of the mirror (click on image below to see one in action). This suggests they could see whether their reflection moved when they moved. The frequency of these movements was much higher when the mirror was in the tank than when it was not. manta © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 22015 - Posted: 03.22.2016
By BARBARA K. LIPSKA AS the director of the human brain bank at the National Institute of Mental Health, I am surrounded by brains, some floating in jars of formalin and others icebound in freezers. As part of my work, I cut these brains into tiny pieces and study their molecular and genetic structure. My specialty is schizophrenia, a devastating disease that often makes it difficult for the patient to discern what is real and what is not. I examine the brains of people with schizophrenia whose suffering was so acute that they committed suicide. I had always done my work with great passion, but I don’t think I really understood what was at stake until my own brain stopped working. In the first days of 2015, I was sitting at my desk when something freakish happened. I extended my arm to turn on the computer, and to my astonishment realized that my right hand disappeared when I moved it to the right lower quadrant of the keyboard. I tried again, and the same thing happened: The hand disappeared completely as if it were cut off at the wrist. It felt like a magic trick — mesmerizing, and totally inexplicable. Stricken with fear, I kept trying to find my right hand, but it was gone. I had battled breast cancer in 2009 and melanoma in 2012, but I had never considered the possibility of a brain tumor. I knew immediately that this was the most logical explanation for my symptoms, and yet I quickly dismissed the thought. Instead I headed to a conference room. My colleagues and I had a meeting scheduled to review our new data on the molecular composition of schizophrenia patients’ frontal cortex, a brain region that shapes who we are — our thoughts, emotions, memories. But I couldn’t focus on the meeting because the other scientists’ faces kept vanishing. Thoughts about a brain tumor crept quietly into my consciousness again, then screamed for attention. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 10: Vision: From Eye to Brain
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 7: Vision: From Eye to Brain
Link ID: 21984 - Posted: 03.14.2016
David H.Wells Take a theory of consciousness that calculates how aware any information-processing network is – be it a computer or a brain. Trouble is, it takes a supercomputer billions of years to verify its predictions. Add a maverick cosmologist, and what do you get? A way to make the theory useful within our lifetime. Integrated information theory (IIT) is one of our best descriptions of consciousness. Developed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, it’s based on the observation that each moment of awareness is unified. When you contemplate a bunch of flowers, say, it’s impossible to be conscious of the flower’s colour independently of its fragrance because the brain has integrated the sensory data. Tononi argues that for a system to be conscious, it must integrate information in such a way that the whole contains more information than the sum of its parts. The measure of how a system integrates information is called phi. One way of calculating phi involves dividing a system into two and calculating how dependent each part is on the other. One cut would be the “cruellest”, creating two parts that are the least dependent on each other. If the parts of the cruellest cut are completely independent, then phi is zero, and the system is not conscious. The greater their dependency, the greater the value of phi and the greater the degree of consciousness of the system. Finding the cruellest cut, however, is almost impossible for any large network. For the human brain, with its 100 billion neurons, calculating phi like this would take “longer than the age of our universe”, says Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Christian Jarrett Back in the 1980s, the American scientist Benjamin Libet made a surprising discovery that appeared to rock the foundations of what it means to be human. He recorded people’s brain waves as they made spontaneous finger movements while looking at a clock, with the participants telling researchers the time at which they decided to waggle their fingers. Libet’s revolutionary finding was that the timing of these conscious decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity (known technically as “the readiness potential”). The implication was that the decision to move was made nonconsciously, and that the subjective feeling of having made this decision is tagged on afterward. In other words, the results implied that free will as we know it is an illusion — after all, how can our conscious decisions be truly free if they come after the brain has already started preparing for them? For years, various research teams have tried to pick holes in Libet’s original research. It’s been pointed out, for example, that it’s pretty tricky for people to accurately report the time that they made their conscious decision. But, until recently, the broad implications of the finding have weathered these criticisms, at least in the eyes of many hard-nosed neuroscientists, and over the last decade or so his basic result has been replicated and built upon with ever more advanced methods such as fMRI and the direct recording of neuronal activity using implanted electrodes. © 2016, New York Media LLC
By David Shultz Is my yellow the same as your yellow? Does your pain feel like my pain? The question of whether the human consciousness is subjective or objective is largely philosophical. But the line between consciousness and unconsciousness is a bit easier to measure. In a new study of how anesthetic drugs affect the brain, researchers suggest that our experience of reality is the product of a delicate balance of connectivity between neurons—too much or too little and consciousness slips away. “It’s a very nice study,” says neuroscientist Melanie Boly at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was not involved in the work. “The conclusions that they draw are justified.” Previous studies of the brain have revealed the importance of “cortical integration” in maintaining consciousness, meaning that the brain must process and combine multiple inputs from different senses at once. Our experience of an orange, for example, is made up of sight, smell, taste, touch, and the recollection of our previous experiences with the fruit. The brain merges all of these inputs—photons, aromatic molecules, etc.—into our subjective experience of the object in that moment. “There is new meaning created by the interaction of things,” says Enzo Tagliazucchi, a physicist at the Institute for Medical Psychology in Kiel, Germany. Consciousness ascribes meaning to the pattern of photons hitting your retina, thus differentiating you from a digital camera. Although the brain still receives these data when we lose consciousness, no coherent sense of reality can be assembled. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
It seems like the ultimate insult, but getting people with brain injuries to do maths may lead to better diagnoses. A trial of the approach has found two people in an apparent vegetative state that may be conscious but “locked-in”. People who are in a vegetative state are awake but have lost all cognitive function. Occasionally, people diagnosed as being in this state are actually minimally conscious with fleeting periods of awareness, or even locked-in. This occurs when they are totally aware but unable to move any part of their body. It can be very difficult to distinguish between each state, which is why a team of researchers in China have devised a brain-computer interface that tests whether people with brain injuries can perform mental arithmetic – a clear sign of conscious awareness. The team, led by Yuanqing Li at South China University of Technology and Jiahui Pan at the South China Normal University in Guangzhou showed 11 people with various diagnoses a maths problem on a screen. This was followed by two possible answers flickering at frequencies designed to evoke different patterns of brain activity. Frames around each number also flashed several times. The participants were asked to focus on the correct answer and count the number of times its frame flashed. The brain patterns from the flickering answers together with the detection of another kind of brain signal that occurs when someone counts, enabled a computer to tell which answer, if any, the person was focusing on. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Laura Sanders Signals in the brain can hint at whether a person undergoing anesthesia will slip under easily or fight the drug, a new study suggests. The results, published January 14 in PLOS Computational Biology, bring scientists closer to being able to tailor doses of the powerful drugs for specific patients. Drug doses are often given with a one-size-fits-all attitude, says bioengineer and neuroscientist Patrick Purdon of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. But the new study finds clear differences in people’s brain responses to similar doses of an anesthetic drug, Purdon says. “To me, that’s the key and interesting point.” Cognitive neuroscientist Tristan Bekinschtein of the University of Cambridge and colleagues recruited 20 people to receive low doses of the general anesthetic propofol. The low dose wasn’t designed to knock people out, but to instead dial down their consciousness until they teetered on the edge of awareness — a point between being awake and alert and being drowsy and nonresponsive. While the drug was being delivered, participants repeatedly heard either a buzzing sound or a noise and were asked each time which they heard, an annoying question designed to gauge awareness. Of the 20 people, seven were sidelined by the propofol and they began to respond less. Thirteen other participants, however, kept right on responding, “fighting the drug,” Bekinschtein says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016.
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 14: Biological Rhythms, Sleep, and Dreaming
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 10: Biological Rhythms and Sleep
Link ID: 21793 - Posted: 01.16.2016
Don’t blame impulsive people for their poor decisions. It’s not necessarily their fault. Impulsivity could result from not having enough time to veto our own actions. At least that is the implication of a twist on a classic experiment on free will. In 1983, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet performed an experiment to test whether we have free will. Participants were asked to voluntarily flex a finger while watching a clock-face with a rotating dot. They had to note the position of the dot as soon as they became aware of their intention to act. As they were doing so, Libet recorded their brain activity via EEG electrodes attached to the scalp. He found that a spike in brain activity called the readiness potential, which precedes a voluntary action, occurred about 350-milliseconds before the volunteers became consciously aware of their intention to act. The readiness potential is thought to signal the brain preparing for movement. Libet interpreted his results to mean that free will is an illusion. But we’re not complete slaves to our neurons, he reasoned, as there was a 200-millisecond gap between conscious awareness of our intention and the initiation of movement. Libet argued that this was enough time to consciously veto the action, or exert our “free won’t”. While Libet’s interpretations have remained controversial, this hasn’t stopped scientists carrying out variations of his experiment. Among other things, this has revealed that people with Tourette’s syndrome, who have uncontrollable tics, experience a shorter veto window than people without the condition, as do those with schizophrenia. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Melissa Healy A new study finds that policies on defining brain death vary from hospital to hospital and could result in serious errors. Since 2010, neurologists have had a clear set of standards and procedures to distinguish a brain-dead patient from one who might emerge from an apparent coma. But when profoundly unresponsive patients are rushed to hospitals around the nation, the physicians who make the crucial call are not always steeped in the diagnostic fine points of brain death and the means of identifying it with complete confidence. State laws governing the diagnosis of brain death vary widely. Some states allow any physician to make the diagnosis, while others dictate the level of specialty a physician making the call must have. Some require that a second physician confirm the diagnosis or that a given period of time elapse. Others make no such demands. Given these situations, hospital policies can be invaluable guides for physicians, hospital administrators and patients’ families. In the absence of consistent physician expertise or legal requirements, hospital protocols can translate a scientific consensus into a step-by-step checklist. That would help ensure that no one who is not brain-dead is denied further care or considered a potential organ donor and that the deceased and their families would have every opportunity to donate organs.
By KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD I arrived in Tirana, Albania, on a Sunday evening in late August, on a flight from Istanbul. The sun had set while the plane was midflight, and as we landed in the dark, images of fading light still filled my mind. The man next to me, a young, red-haired American wearing a straw hat, asked me if I knew how to get into town from the airport. I shook my head, put the book I had been reading into my backpack, got up, lifted my suitcase out of the overhead compartment and stood waiting in the aisle for the door up ahead to open. That book was the reason I had come. It was called “Do No Harm,” and it was written by the British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. His job is to slice into the brain, the most complex structure we know of in the universe, where everything that makes us human is contained, and the contrast between the extremely sophisticated and the extremely primitive — all of that work with knives, drills and saws — fascinated me deeply. I had sent Marsh an email, asking if I might meet him in London to watch him operate. He wrote a cordial reply saying that he seldom worked there now, but he was sure something could be arranged. In passing, he mentioned that he would be operating in Albania in August and in Nepal in September, and I asked hesitantly whether I could join him in Albania. Now I was here. Tense and troubled, I stepped out of the door of the airplane, having no idea what lay ahead. I knew as little about Albania as I did about brain surgery. The air was warm and stagnant, the darkness dense. A bus was waiting with its engine running. Most of the passengers were silent, and the few who chatted with one another spoke a language I didn’t know. It struck me that 25 years ago, when this was among the last remaining Communist states in Europe, I would not have been allowed to enter; then, the country was closed to the outside world, almost like North Korea today. Now the immigration officer barely glanced at my passport before stamping it. She dully handed it back to me, and I entered Albania. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Scientists showed that they could alter brain activity of rats and either wake them up or put them in an unconscious state by changing the firing rates of neurons in the central thalamus, a region known to regulate arousal. The study, published in eLIFE, was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health. “Our results suggest the central thalamus works like a radio dial that tunes the brain to different states of activity and arousal,” said Jin Hyung Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology, neurosurgery and bioengineering at Stanford University, and a senior author of the study. Located deep inside the brain the thalamus acts as a relay station sending neural signals from the body to the cortex. Damage to neurons in the central part of the thalamus may lead to problems with sleep, attention, and memory. Previous studies suggested that stimulation of thalamic neurons may awaken patients who have suffered a traumatic brain injury from minimally conscious states. Dr. Lee’s team flashed laser pulses onto light sensitive central thalamic neurons of sleeping rats, which caused the cells to fire. High frequency stimulation of 40 or 100 pulses per second woke the rats. In contrast, low frequency stimulation of 10 pulses per second sent the rats into a state reminiscent of absence seizures that caused them to stiffen and stare before returning to sleep. “This study takes a big step towards understanding the brain circuitry that controls sleep and arousal,” Yejun (Janet) He, Ph.D., program director at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).