Controversial Theory of Consciousness Challenged by New Study of Mysterious Brain Region

A popular theory of consciousness centered on a mysterious region of the brain is probably wrong, according to a new research study. Proposed in 2005 by a pioneer in genetic research, the theory suggested that consciousness resided in an area of ​​the brain known as the claustrum.

Now, recent findings appear to overturn that theory, showing that instead of creating consciousness, the claustrum functions more like an internet router, relaying complex signals between brain regions.

Theory of neurobiological consciousness proposed by the Nobel laureate

In the 1950s, English researcher Dr. Francis Crick helped decipher the helical structure of DNA, opening up a whole new world of scientific understanding. This research won Crick and his partners Rosalind Franklin and James Watson the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Decades later, Crick, along with Christof Koch, noted that the area of ​​the brain known as the claustrum appeared to be a central interface between different areas of the human mind and offers that this area was probably where human consciousness existed. Like a Press release announcing the new research notes, “This region has long been known to exchange signals with much of the cortex, which is responsible for higher reasoning and complex thought.”

Since then, a number of competing theories of consciousness have been advanced, while Crick’s theory has remained popular among many neuroscientists.

Hoping to measure the truth of the famous theory of DNA researchers, a team from the University of Maryland School of Medicine decided to put it to the test in the laboratory. The results seem to show that Crick wasn’t quite right, but also show how this area of ​​the brain may be essential for performing complex tasks as well as a likely culprit of addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

Lab Experiments Show Consciousness Is Likely Bigger Than Claustrum

“They developed a new theory – based on data – that the claustrum behaves more like a high-speed internet router, taking over executive commands from the ‘boss’ areas of the cerebral cortex that form complex thoughts to generate “networks” in the cortex,” the statement explains. “Acting like a router, the claustrum coordinates these networks to work together to accomplish the many cognitively demanding tasks we perform every moment of daily life. .”

To test this theory against Crick’s, the University of Maryland researchers first “turned off” the claustrum in a group of lab mice. As expected, the mice did not lose consciousness but continued to run normally. This result alone seemed to directly challenge Crick’s theory.

Then, these same mice were given a series of simple tasks as well as complex tasks while their claustrum was still disengaged. As the University of Maryland researchers theorized, the mice were able to complete the simplest tasks but were blocked by the more complex ones. This result seemed to support their theory that the claustrum functioned more as a modem and less as the seat of consciousness, delivering another blow to Crick’s theory.

The brain’s claustrum ‘turns on’ when a person performs a complicated task. (Brian Mathur, UMSOM)

To determine if these same findings were also seen in human subjects, the study’s lead author, Brian Mathur, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology, teamed up with David Seminowicz, Ph.D., professor of neural and pain sciences at the UM School of Dentistry, and Fred Barrett, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Together, the three researchers analyzed functional brain MRIs of healthy human volunteers as they performed a series of simple and complex tasks, just like the mice in the original study.

As they had theorized, the researchers saw the claustrum “light up” only when the human subjects were performing the complex tasks and not while performing the simple tasks. Like previous tests, it turned out that Crick’s theory was wrong, and their new theory about the role of the claustrum was more accurate.

“The brain is the most complex system in the known universe. It is these data-driven theoretical advances that propel our knowledge toward harnessing this complexity to improve human life,” Mathur said. “As the most connected structure in the brain, the claustrum is a window into the enigma of the brain, the mind.”

Hope for people with Alzheimer’s, addiction and schizophrenia

Posted in the review Trends in cognitive science, the research not only sheds new light on an earlier theory of human consciousness, but may also offer hope for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and substance abuse. This is primarily because claustrum dysfunction has been shown to be an underlying component of these disorders.

“Understanding how the brain flexibly forms and coordinates these networks—through the claustrum—is critical for treating cognitive decline, which occurs in drug addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia,” said Mark T. Gladwin. , MD, vice president of medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Or, as Dr. Mathur explained: “Our hypothesis provides us with an indispensable conceptual framework for designing new therapeutic strategies (for these conditions).”

The researchers acknowledge that further study is needed to explore these potential therapeutic strategies. However, given the research team’s findings, it appears that Frick’s neurobiological theory of consciousness has experienced one of its most significant challenges yet.

Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter @plain_fiction

Sharon D. Cole