The nature of consciousness has been a puzzling question that has likely been in existence for as long as we humans have. The absence of any agreed theory to explain has been a problem, but to explain our minds, we need to understand it and its respective place in the universe.
Despite our advances in the field of neuroscience, we are still unable to come up a definitive theory as to how our brains conceive consciousness. However, a novel approach for digitally mapping and reconstructing the brain may be the key to finding an answer to the problem.
Previously, mapping specific neuron peripherals was a labor-intensive problem that took a lot of time and involved inoculating single cells with a dye, dissecting sections of the brain and manually tracing the neurons.
Being able to completely trace the pathway of a neuron in an entire organ is a rare feat, however, through this technique, it will be cost-effective, scalable, less invasive and time-saving. The president of the Seattle-based Allen Institute, Christof Koch led a team of researchers to develop this new method.
In a BRAIN Initiative meeting that took place in Maryland’s Bethesda region, Koch clarified that the new 3D mapping technique uncovered something new concerning a tiny layer of cells in the brain; Claustrum which he believes could be the heart of consciousness in both humans and mice.
The team based their findings on brain models of genetically engineered mice that they engineered. The genetically engineered mice designed such that on exposure to a particular drug, certain genes from their claustrum would “light up.”
When the mice were inoculated with a small dosage of the drug, a small number of neurons sparked just enough to turn on those genes. A fluorescent green protein was produced from the reaction which proliferated through the entire neuronal pathway.
The team was later able to create a 3-dimensional reconstruction of the said fluorescent neurons using a computer program and 10,000 cutaway images of the mapped mouse brain. The results showed that the length of the three neurons extended to each of the brain’s hemisphere which is remarkable.
According to Koch, one of the neurons stretched so far that it seemed to envelop the brain like a crown made of thorns. Additionally, the three neurons appeared to directly link to a majority of the outer regions of brain attributed to gathering sensory information and stimulate behavior.
It led Koch to believe that through the Claustrum’s ability to coordinate both input and output, it is directly involved in spawning consciousness. According to Columbia University neurobiologist, Rafael Yuste this new technique is quite remarkable; however, it doesn’t convincingly prove the connection of the claustrum to consciousness.
Yuste compared it to trying to figure out a language which we don’t understand the alphabet. He also added that the technique will prove useful in detecting the variety of cells in the brain and could enhance further research in understanding the functions of the brain.