Monday, October 21, 2013

UCLA Psychologists Report New Insights on Human Brain, Consciousness (via Tracing Knowledge)

Figure 6 Local metrics.
Regions displaying a significant effect of condition on local metrics. (a) Nodal strength (yellow-red colors indicate regions in which degree was stronger, on average, for the S [propofol sedation] and LOC [loss of consciousness] conditions, while blue/light-blue colors indicate regions in which degree was stronger for W [wakefulness] and R [after conscious recovery]). (b) Local efficiency (yellow-red colors indicate regions in which the measure is stronger, on average for the LOC and R conditions). Color intensity is assigned on the basis of the (FDR adjusted) p-value for the condition factor in the 2-way repeated measures ANOVA. (Surface rendering was performed using Caret [98].)  doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003271.g006

An interesting new study from researchers at UCLA has provided insights into what happens in the brain as a person shifts from consciousness to being unconscious following administration of the anesthetic propofol. Not only does this tell us a lot about unconsciousness, it also suggests that consciousness "arises from the mode in which billions of neurons communicate with one another."

Key points:
  • Monti and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the flow of information in the brains of 12 healthy volunteers (ages 18 to 31, 6 men and 6 women) changed as they lost consciousness under anesthesia with propofol. 
  • Analysis of “network properties” of subjects’ brains conducted with graph theory (often used to study air-traffic patterns, information on the Internet, and social groups, among other topics).
  • When we become unconsciousness, communication between brain areas becomes extremely inefficient (each area of the brain became very distant from every other, making it difficult for information to travel from one place to another).
  • This research shows that consciousness is not a localized event in the brain - it “arises from the mode in which billions of neurons communicate with one another.”
Below is the press release followed by the abstract and author summary of the PLoS Computational Biology article. I found this via the blog, Chasing Knowledge.

UCLA psychologists report new insights on human brain, consciousness

October 17, 2013 | By UCLA Newsroom
Original online publication: UCLA Newsroom
PDF: UCLA psychologists report new insights on human brain, consciousness : UCLA Newsroom

UCLA psychologists have used brain-imaging techniques to study what happens to the human brain when it slips into unconsciousness. Their research, published Oct. 17 in the online journal PLOS Computational Biology, is an initial step toward developing a scientific definition of consciousness.

“In terms of brain function, the difference between being conscious and unconscious is a bit like the difference between driving from Los Angeles to New York in a straight line versus having to cover the same route hopping on and off several buses that force you to take a ‘zig-zag’ route and stop in several places,” said lead study author Martin Monti, an assistant professor of psychology and neurosurgery at UCLA.

Monti and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the flow of information in the brains of 12 healthy volunteers changed as they lost consciousness under anesthesia with propofol. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 31 and were evenly divided between men and women.

The psychologists analyzed the “network properties” of the subjects’ brains using a branch of mathematics known as graph theory, which is often used to study air-traffic patterns, information on the Internet and social groups, among other topics.

“It turns out that when we lose consciousness, the communication among areas of the brain becomes extremely inefficient, as if suddenly each area of the brain became very distant from every other, making it difficult for information to travel from one place to another,” Monti said.

The finding shows that consciousness does not “live” in a particular place in our brain but rather “arises from the mode in which billions of neurons communicate with one another,” he said.

When patients suffer severe brain damage and enter a coma or a vegetative state, Monti said, it is very possible that the sustained damage impairs their normal brain function and the emergence of consciousness in the same manner as was seen by the life scientists in the healthy volunteers under anesthesia.

“If this were indeed the case, we could imagine in the future using our technique to monitor whether interventions are helping patients recover consciousness,” he said.

“It could, however, also be the case that losing consciousness because of brain injury affects brain function through different mechanisms,” said Monti, whose research team is currently addressing this question in another study.

“As profoundly defining of our mind as consciousness is, without having a scientific definition of this phenomenon, it is extremely difficult to study,” Monti noted. This study, he said, marks an initial step toward conducting neuroscience research on consciousness.

The research was conducted at Belgium’s University Hospital of Liege.

Monti’s expertise includes cognitive neuroscience, the relationship between language and thought, and how consciousness is lost and recovered after severe brain injury. He was part of a team of American and Israeli brain scientists who used fMRI on former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in January 2013 to assess his brain responses.

Surprisingly, Sharon, who was presumed to be in a vegetative state since suffering a brain hemorrhage in 2006, showed significant brain activity, Monti and his colleagues reported.

The former prime minister was scanned to assess the extent and quality of his brain processing, using methods recently developed by Monti and his colleagues. The scientists found subtle but encouraging signs of consciousness.

Co-authors of the current research included Evan Lutkenhoff, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in Monti’s laboratory; Mikahil Rubinov of Cambridge University in the U.K.; and Steven Laureys, who leads the Coma Science Group at the Cyclotron Research Center and the department of neurology at Belgium’s Sart Tilman Liege University Hospital.

The study was funded primarily by the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

___ Read straight from UCLA Newsroom

Reference paper

Dynamic Change of Global and Local Information Processing in Propofol-Induced Loss and Recovery of Consciousness

Martin M. Monti, Evan S. Lutkenhoff, Mikail Rubinov, Pierre Boveroux, Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, Olivia Gosseries, Marie-Aurélie Bruno, Quentin Noirhomme, Mélanie Boly, Steven Laureys


Whether unique to humans or not, consciousness is a central aspect of our experience of the world. The neural fingerprint of this experience, however, remains one of the least understood aspects of the human brain. In this paper we employ graph-theoretic measures and support vector machine classification to assess, in 12 healthy volunteers, the dynamic reconfiguration of functional connectivity during wakefulness, propofol-induced sedation and loss of consciousness, and the recovery of wakefulness. Our main findings, based on resting-state fMRI, are three-fold. First, we find that propofol-induced anesthesia does not bear differently on long-range versus short-range connections. Second, our multi-stage design dissociated an initial phase of thalamo-cortical and cortico-cortical hyperconnectivity, present during sedation, from a phase of cortico-cortical hypoconnectivity, apparent during loss of consciousness. Finally, we show that while clustering is increased during loss of consciousness, as recently suggested, it also remains significantly elevated during wakefulness recovery. Conversely, the characteristic path length of brain networks (i.e., the average functional distance between any two regions of the brain) appears significantly increased only during loss of consciousness, marking a decrease of global information-processing efficiency uniquely associated with unconsciousness. These findings suggest that propofol-induced loss of consciousness is mainly tied to cortico-cortical and not thalamo-cortical mechanisms, and that decreased efficiency of information flow is the main feature differentiating the conscious from the unconscious brain.

Author Summary

One of the most elusive aspects of the human brain is the neural fingerprint of the subjective feeling of consciousness. While a growing body of experimental evidence is starting to address this issue, to date we are still hard pressed to answer even basic questions concerning the nature of consciousness in humans as well as other species. In the present study we follow a recent theoretical construct according to which the crucial factor underlying consciousness is the modality with which information is exchanged across different parts of the brain. In particular, we represent the brain as a network of regions exchanging information (as is typically done in a comparatively young branch of mathematics referred to as graph theory), and assess how different levels of consciousness induced by anesthetic agent affect the quality of information exchange across regions of the network. Overall, our findings show that what makes the state of propofol-induced loss of consciousness different from all other conditions (namely, wakefulness, light sedation, and consciousness recovery) is the fact that all regions of the brain appear to be functionally further apart, reducing the efficiency with which information can be exchanged across different parts of the network.

___Read straight from PLoS Comput Biol 9(10): e1003271. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003271

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