Patients suffering from loss of consciousness due to traumatic brain injuries and other forms of brain damage may find promise in the results of a new study by scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A team of scientists from the University discovered an area of the brain that controls and monitors what they have called the brain’s ‘alert status.’
The scientists made the discovery while studying the mechanisms by which surgical anesthesia works to suppress conscious awareness and painful stimuli in the brain. It was formerly believed that the changes to the brain under anesthesia which also include a shift to a sleep-like brainwave state, slowed brain metabolism, a sharp decrease in muscle tone, and suppression of behavioral functions were caused by general neuronal suppression due to the drugs used, or lack of oxygen and nutrients.
The new report shows a dramatically different mechanism at work in the brain. A part of the brain called the mesopontine tegmentum contains a small group of neurons near the base of the brain. The neuron group exerts full control of the activity of the cerebral cortex and the spinal cord. The neural structure can also remove pain sensations, lead to a collapse of body posture, and even coma-like loss of consciousness.
The current study was focused on rats and involved injecting the neuron group in the mesopontine tegmentum, referred to by the scientists as the ‘center of consciousness,’ with a tiny dose of anesthetic drugs. The drugs had a massive suppressive effect on cerebral activity in the rats’ brains.
The results, if they prove to translate to the structure of the human brain, promise a wide range of new developments in the treatment and possible cure of patients suffering from coma and other losses of consciousness. The scientists also hope to discover and understand more clearly how consciousness arises out of what they referred to as a ‘biological machine,’ the human brain.
The researchers also speculate that it may be possible to introduce an electrical charge to the center of consciousness in order to draw a patient out of a coma. They also hope to develop more effective treatments for oversleeping and insomnia from analysis and further study.