Will This New Discovery Lead to Better Treatments For Those in a Coma?

Scientists at Harvard University think they have uncovered a mystery involving consciousness that’s been baffling us for years. Researchers now believe they have managed to pinpoint three specific areas of the brain that appear to work as a network and are crucial for consciousness to exist. This could be a breakthrough in terms of finding new treatments for patients in a vegetative state and as well as give us a deeper understanding of the human race in general.

Michael Fox from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre at Harvard Medical School is the lead researcher in the study and he says, “For the first time, we have found a connection between the brainstem region involved in arousal and regions involved in awareness, two prerequisites for consciousness.”

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This image is an example of a “connectome” brain map of neural connections that includes the brainstem. 

Arousal and awareness are therefore the two critical components that make up consciousness. While arousal is likely to be regulated by the brainstem, awareness is a little harder to pin down. However, researchers have now located two specific cortex regions that they believe to form a part of our consciousness.

To get to this conclusion the team carried out a study on 36 patients with brainstem lesions (12 were unconscious, and 24 were conscious). Comparing the two types of patients’ brainstems, the researchers found that one particular area of the brainstem called the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum, was damaged in 10 out of 12 of the unconscious patients, but only 1 out of 24 of the conscious ones.

The team then dug a little deeper and discovered that there are in fact two areas of the cortex that link up to the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum. To confirm the results further, the team cross-referenced this with scans of 45 more patients in an unconscious state, and it was found that all of them had a disruption to the network between the regions. This information will hopefully lead to better treatments for those in a coma or other unconscious state.

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