Scientists discover a giant neuron around the brain that could explain conciousness

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WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

  • One of life’s mysteries is why life exists in the first place, and the mystery of consciousness comes a close second, but the latter might be about to be solved


 

Consciousness has long baffled, well, everyone. Let’s face it – noone really knows why when life is essentially a mixture of dumb and lifeless chemical cocktails we’re conscious. But now, hot on the heels after scientists announced that they think they’ve found the seat of human consciousness, there’s been another potential breakthrough. Scientists have discovered a huge single cell that wraps around the entire circumference of the brain. The neuron’s connections into the various regions of the outer brain are so dense that researchers suspect that it might be the link from which consciousness emerges, reports Nature.

 

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The neuron’s actually one of three newly discovered giant cells that extend across both brain hemispheres. Only the largest one wraps around the entire organ like a “Crown of Thorns,” but the discovery of any of the three alone would be considered significant.

Perhaps most curious about these neurons is that they each grow out of the same central brain region known as the claustrum, a thin sheet of hyper-connected grey matter that has been linked to consciousness in previous studies. All mammalian brains are suspected to possess a claustrum, and in humans it’s known to communicate with almost all regions of the cortex. Many higher cognitive functions such as language, long-term planning and advanced sensory tasks like seeing and hearing have been associated with it.

It’s possible that the claustrum is where synchronisation happens between the brain’s hemispheres and cortical regions – the synchronization that explains where the seamless quality of conscious experience comes from.

How could researchers have missed such a huge neuron until now? The brain is a massively complex web of neurons, and the task of unravelling each of them is time-intensive and tedious. Also, researchers don’t usually have the luxury of unravelling the neural networks of live human brains, for obvious ethical reasons, so they often have to perform their experiments on animals, which has its limitations.

For instance, this study was performed on mouse brains. Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and his team discovered the three giant neurons by tracing them through a mouse’s brain with dye. The pathway had to be delicately followed by hand, a particularly arduous task, given how long these neurons turned out to be. In the end, it took 10,000 cross-sectional images of the mouse brain and a computer program to create a 3D reconstruction to show just how extensive the three dyed cells were.

 

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The existence of such all encompassing neurons emerging from an area of the brain that’s already known to be hyper-connected and linked with higher order brain processing is compelling, but more research will be needed to definitively establish this network as the seat of consciousness. Still, just the fact that this could be the string from which the mysteries of consciousness finally get unravelled is exciting to think about.

What if the wonders of the soul all hang on the thread of just these three, albeit very long and connected, brain cells? It seems impossible. But then, in many ways, so does consciousness itself.

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, Futurist and Founder of the 311 Institute is described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers.” Among other things Matthew keeps busy helping the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers ideate the next five generations of smartphones, and what comes beyond, the world’s largest chip makers envision the next twenty years of intelligent machines, and is helping Europe’s largest energy companies re-invent energy generation, transmission and retail.

Recognised in 2013, 2015 and 2016 as one of Europe’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an award winning author, entrepreneur and international speaker who has been featured on the BBC, Discovery and other outlets. Working hand in hand with accelerators, investors, governments, multi-nationals and regulators around the world Matthew helps them envision the future and helps them transform their industries, products and go to market strategies, and shows them how the combination of new, democratised, powerful emerging technologies are helping accelerate cultural, industrial and societal change.

Matthew’s clients include Accenture, Bain & Co, Bank of America, Blackrock, Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deutsche Bank, Deloitte, Deutsche Bank, Du Pont, E&Y, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, HPE, Huawei, JP Morgan Chase, KPMG, Lloyds Banking Group, McKinsey & Co, PWC, Qualcomm, Rolls Royce, SAP, Samsung, Schroeder’s, Sequoia Capital, Sopra Steria, UBS, the UK’s HM Treasury, the USAF and many others.

Comments
  • Livi#1

    12th March 2017

    Do we know of any instances where these neurons are not functional? How would that affect human consciousness? Obviously, they can’t experiment with that, but there might be cases of disease or accident that has rendered these neurons nonfunctional.

    Reply
    • Matthew Griffin#2

      19th March 2017

      Hey Livi, as I understand it the scientists have found these neurons in other mammals such as rats and mice and they’re all functional. However, there was a recent study into coma victims and they found that one of the areas of the brain that these neurons connect was turned off. If you click the “Conciousness” tag at the top that will take you straight to the other article, all the best, Matt @mgriffin_uk

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