By Carl Zimmer
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These studies show that anesthesia causes the entire brain to power down. Its activity will drop between 30 and 60 percent. But the results of these studies are ambiguous, since each brain regions may respond differently to a different drug. Despite this uncertainty, one region consistently becomes quieter than average. It’s a grape-size cluster of neurons almost dead center in the brain known as the thalamus. Is the thalamus the brain’s power switch? It certainly has the right stuff for the job.
Consciousness is the brain’s ability to be in a complex state, even in response to a simple stimulus like a tone. The vast number of different states our brains can enter when we are aware gives consciousness its marvelously rich feeling. In order to produce those states, the brain needs to use many elements, each of which is active and able to respond. It also needs the mass transit system that links all the elements together. Working from this hypothesis, Tononi and his colleagues are trying to develop tools that can monitor levels of consciousness in anesthetized patients.
Meck’s model has been supported in a number of experiments. The most surprising of these was carried out by UCLA scientists on cocaine addicts. The rush of cocaine is due to the way it floods the brain with a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Dopamine regulates how quickly neurons fire. And as neurons fire faster, cocaine addicts experience time differently than other people. In one experiment, scientists had people wait for a bell to ring and then guess how long they had waited. The right answer was 53 seconds.
Brain Cuttings: Fifteen Journeys Through the Mind by Carl Zimmer