The complexity of the human brain and how it works has perplexed scientists for centuries. However, slowly but surely, the mystery is being unravelled one thread at a time.
Neuroscientists at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) from its School of Psychology have now revealed that, for the first time, we have seen that regions of the brain responsible for complex thought do not ‘shut off’ when entering an unconscious state. The researchers also showed that these areas – responsible for hearing and higher-order systems – also don’t disconnect from one another in different unconscious states, as previously thought.
Publishing the findings in Scientific Reports, the researchers had originally set out to identify whether there is a common mechanism that underlies brain responses in different unconscious states. The study involved healthy individuals who were put under a general anaesthetic as well as patients who had become unconscious as a result of a severe brain injury.
All of the study’s participants were presented with the same five minutes of audio from the Liam Neeson cult classic Taken, from inside an MRI scanner. In both groups, the results showed that brain regions were highly interconnected to one another but their responses lost their specificity, or ability to convey information.
The team said these findings help to understand consciousness in the healthy brain, and how it is disrupted under anaesthesia or after brain injury.
Similar to a loud party
“What makes our research unique is trying to understand how the brain processes complex information in different unconscious states,” said Dr Lorina Naci, assistant professor at TCD’s Institute of Neuroscience.
“Our findings suggest that, during unconsciousness, brain responses are all jumbled up and this leads to lack of understanding. This is similar to the confusion one may experience in a loud party, where the sensory cacophony prevents you from understanding clearly anything others are saying.”
Conducting the same experiment with conscious study participants, the researchers found the opposite was the case, with the fine-tuned specificity of the brain responses critical for understanding and complex thought.
“Indeed, individuals with higher intellectual abilities showed higher specificity, further demonstrating that the diversity of brain responses is an essential feature of conscious cognition and verbal intelligence,” Naci said.
‘Taken’ star Liam Neeson. Image: PopularImages/Depositphotos
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