Huge Neuron Hints at Consciousness

There was a recent ScienceAlert article reported on a huge neuron, which wraps itself around the circumference of the brain. It’s been likened to a big winding tape worm.

It is the “first time” that researchers found a neuron wrapping around the whole circumference of a mouse brain. Usually, our images of a brain come from TV shows, Netflix, movies. And they’re shown as a big piece of cauliflower, with some distinct structures, but nothing innervating the entirety of the structure, the brain.

It was reported that this was “so densely connected across both hemispheres, it could finally explain the origins of consciousness.” Basically, the assertion here is the feeling that makes you feel like you to you is consciousness.

That consciousness is this feeling of unified experience of the world, able to attend to bits and pieces of

consciousness, brain
A digital reconstruction of a neuron that encircles the mouse brain.

information, and do something with that attention at any one given time. So what would solve the problem?

Apparently, the idea of a singular structure other than the brain itself that wraps around the brain…itself. That being an individual neuron, which, for a rat, is very large. It connects between two hemispheres.

There is another structure, which is like the telephone lines between the hemispheres, called the corpus callosum. This important structure does not get into the depths of either hemisphere as much as the big neuron.

The neuron was detected as “emanating from one of the best-connected regions in the brain,” BBC News reports. This may imply coordination of information transfer from disparate areas of the brain, for conscious thought.

That conscious thought coming into experience as the consciously deliberated information. So it’s like asking, “Of this arena of passively processed information and experienced on the periphery of my awareness, what is taking up my conscious thought?”

And then thinking some more, asking, “What structures in the brain correspond to the conscious thought?” These are called, usually and academically non-descriptively, “Neural Correlates of Consciousness.”

This recent finding is part of a grand, and so far, challenging, series of attempts to map consciousness to the brain. Attempts made but with no definitive conclusion. And it’s not the only one.

There’s 3. This isn’t in a human brain, or a primate brain, which seems like a weakness. It’s in a mammal brain, though, which is closer, evolutionary and historically speaking.

These brain parts may have been “undetected in our own brains for centuries.” So how close to solving consciousness? According to the reports, it depends on the definition of consciousness. It depends on the criteria for scientific processes. It depends on the empirical data sets taken into account.

It depends on the level of taking into account of the well-accepted, well-attested-to, broadly empirically supported standard theories. New theories, frameworks to explain sets of facts–fact 1, fact 2, fact 3, fit into such a hypothesis and the predictions from this are born out.

“At a recent meeting of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative in Maryland, a team from the Allen Institute for Brain Science described how all three neurons stretch across both hemispheres of the brain, but the largest one wraps around the organ’s circumference like a “crown of thorns’.”

Christof Koch, a respected and renowned researcher, and the president and chief science officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, told Nature’s Sara Reardon that this is a first. Indeed, the extent of the neuron is vast relative to the brain. And to boot, all 3 Super Size Me neurons come from that same area, “emanate” from that same locale.

It’s apparently called the claustrum and appears to be, based on modern evidence, the single greatest interconnected brain portion.

Plus, its connections, the claustrum’s emanations, link to “higher cognitive functions such as language, long-term planning, and advanced sensory tasks such as seeing and hearing.” So brain structures devoted to this.

In 2014, Koch wrote for Scientific American, “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.”

Like an “orchestra” conductor, the claustrum (plus these emanations) conducts consciousness. So that mass of passive information processing permits the possibility for the selection for conscious thought, and the orchestra follows the conductor.

It’s one of the most important connections, one documented by many case studies, individual medical profiles over time, diagnoses, and reportage. One such case includes:

A 54-year-old woman checked into the George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates in Washington, DC, for epilepsy treatment. 

This involved gently probing various regions of her brain with electrodes to narrow down the potential source of her epileptic seizures, but when the team started stimulating the woman’s claustrum, they found they could effectively ‘switch’ her consciousness off and on again.

This on-off switch for consciousness, for awareness, the feeling of you being you, and observing you feeling you be you, appears to be a significant discovery for neuroscience. With electrical impulses, the woman would stare blankly into ‘space’ – not sure if they were outside, but presumably the room where the procedure was taking place.

She suddenly zapped back into consciousness – no memory. Two days of experiments reconfirmed the proceedings. So scientists believed this case was not anomalous.

And this has been documented in other cases of sub-populations that are unappreciated or almost completely neglected. It was 171 individuals in the experiment in total, including war veterans. Those 171 combat veterans had correlates, neural correlates of consciousness in a way, of the “duration, but not frequency, of loss of consciousness.”

This is not proof, but continual hints or suggestions as to the central correlate of consciousness, the claustrum, which includes these 3 huge emanations or neurons innervating other areas of the brain.

Does this prove the Koch theory of consciousness? According to the evidence, not necessarily. Rather, what it does appear to give is context and more evidence. Therefore, neuroscience appears to be 3 Super Size Me neurons closer to proving the Koch theory of consciousness.

About Scott Jacobsen 318 Articles
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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